The title of the films, set in 1974, 1980, and 1983, alludes both to a region of Northern England and also to the familiar fairy tale.
Like Oz, Yorkshire, the sprawling county of moors where the story takes place, is divided into three regions, or "ridings," with Leeds as the seat of West Riding. Like Peace's novels, the movies are inspired by the notorious rape/murders of young girls committed during the 1960s and of prostitutes killed by the Yorkshire Ripper during the 1970s.
Yet the trilogy's dominant theme is not one of girls and women stalked by the Big Bad Wolf. Its subject is the Big Bad Wolfpack, intimidating city, county and environs, committing (and covering up) their crimes by imitating the signature of the Yorkshire Ripper.
The bestial nature of this pack can be heard in their nicknames - Wolf, Rat, Pig - and seen in the animal imagery, most disturbingly that of a murdered child with swan's wings stitched to her shoulder blades.
Though the three films are very different stylistically, they have recurring characters and images. One motif is that of a coffin rolling into the crematorium oven, bursting into flame, dwindling into cinders. Each movie is anchored by an idealist (a reporter, a police investigator, a lawyer) who tries to smoke out the bad guys. And at one point in each, a defiantly entitled cop or robber says, "This is the North - we do what we want!" Though the movies have more implied than actual violence, they are deeply, deeply creepy.
The first, and best, of these films produced for Britain's Channel Four television (and available here through IFC On Demand, as well as theatrically) is Red Riding: 1974, directed by Julian Jarrold (Becoming Jane) and starring Andrew Garfield as Eddie Dunford.
An investigative reporter, Eddie connects the dots between a schoolgirl's brutal murder, prior child killings, and the kinky sexual appetites of Dawson (Sean Bean), a Leeds real-estate developer who has the local constables and publishers in his deep pockets.
Eddie's sinking recognition that the folk who should be protecting innocents are too busy protecting themselves sets the tone. While pursuing the story, Eddie strikes up a relationship with the mother of one of the murdered girls only to discover abominations beneath the abominations.
Each of the movies is shot in the style of the do-gooder at its center. Jarrold's installment is edgy and smoky, and surveys its milieu through the bottom of a whiskey shotglass, like Dunford. Red Riding: 1980, from director James Marsh (Man on Wire), is brisk, efficient, and heartsick like Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine), the police inspector imported from Manchester to clean up the muck in Leeds. As in L.A. Confidential, a film to which the trilogy owes much, it's hard to remove the reek in a police department that stinks from the head down.
Who can stop the predators who use Yorkshire as cruelly and casually as they treat its female inhabitants? Red Riding: 1983 from Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie) volunteers two candidates: Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey), a police higher-up who has been part of the cover-up, and John Piggott (Mark Addy), a threadbare lawyer. Both are stricken by the disappearance of yet another schoolgirl, and both push through the murk toward the light, offering the audience a ray of hope that is long-delayed.
Is Red Riding worth five hours of your movie-going time? I appreciated the atmospherics, the filmmaking and the excellent performances. But finally, Red Riding is less than the sum of its parts.
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey
at 215-854-5402 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/