The impetus behind the Red Riding trilogy was an intriguing one: take author David Peace's epic quartet of novels concerning institutional corruption in Yorkshire from the years 1974 to 1983, set against the backdrop of real-life crime; arbitrarily ignore the novel that takes place in 1977; divide directing duties for the three remaining films among three different filmmakers. The results were aired on Britain's Channel 4 in March 2009, prefatory to an international theatrical release.

With all the great directors who live in the United Kingdom, it seems a bit odd that the series' producers ended up selecting Julian Jarrold (of the soulless period films Becoming Jane and Brideshead Revisited), James Marsh (whose excellent documentary Man on Wire does not change the fact that his only previous narrative feature was 2005's absolutely forgettable The King) and Anand Tucker (who fucking sucks). It's almost as though they were daring the whole vast edifice to end up failing. Though indeed, it barely manages to do so and in fact in the early going, it's a pretty damn decent procedural, albeit one hurt by the fact that the first and best episode calls to mind elements of the brilliant miniseries State of Play without being anywhere near as good.

So, the first film: titled in all the promotional material as Red Riding: 1974, though the on-screen card for all three films clearly reads Red Riding: In the year of our Lord 19XX, this first episode concerns an ambitious young reporter named Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield) who's just returned home to Yorkshire from "the South"; he gets it into his head that he's going to solve the disappearance of a little girl, that looks to all appearances to be the third in five years by the same kidnapper. He doesn't get much help from anybody at his paper, and even less from the local police; it becomes clearer and clearer that a whole lot of people are trying to hide something, and it's all connected to the construction of a gorgeous new shopping megacenter in what used to be the home of a local indigent population (the locals refer to them as gypsies; I lack the knowledge of Yorkshire slang to know if this actually means that they're Romani).

As far as such things go, 1974 has a reasonably taut mystery at its heart (it, like the other three parts, was written by Terry Gilliam's sometime collaborator Tony Grisoni), though it all gets spoiled by one of the early credits: "and Sean Bean". I like Sean Bean a whole lot, but I'm getting tired of the way that every time he's in a movie, he ends up playing the secret villain. It's even worse in this film; he doesn't appear until well into the film, but there's this one particular character that everybody keeps talking about, so obvious that character is going to turn out to be played by the biggest name, and so you can pretty well guess how it's all going to end so fucking early that it makes my head hurt. But at least the particular details of what goes on in between "Sean Bean? Must be the bad guy" and Sean Bean actually being revealed as the bad guy are fairly convoluted and twisty, and well-executed.

"Well-executed" is a phrase I never thought I'd use of a Julian Jarrold film, but 1974 is actually put together pretty well. Shot on 16mm, it has a dingy, hazy, and dark look that makes it much the most distinctive film of the trilogy, visually speaking, and the crudeness matches well with the plot. "Dark for dark business!" as another British author, J.R.R. Tolkien, once observed; and as 1974 is the film in the trilogy that is least concerned with some specific aspect of corruption and degradation, but rather with a whole world that is so sordid that it seems impossible for anything nice or lovely to thrive in it, it is right that it should be the most grimy, grainy looking of the films.

Well-acted (typical of British television, the cast is packed full of great actors both well-known and fresh-faced, including David Morrissey, Peter Mullan, and Rebecca Hall), 1974 is not an especially ground-breaking mystery, but it is fairly engrossing, and stands alone remarkably well; though it is deepened somewhat by the plot of the other two films, it does not require them in a way that they require it. Jarrold does sometimes let the pacing lag (at only 102 minutes, I would still have bet money that it was two hours), but in the main it's a satisfying genre experiment, and fairly brainy too boot. Some threads are left dangling (particularly the fate of the people displaced by the shopping center, a plotline that ends up having a wholly different significance than we were first led to believe), but this happens when you cut a big novel into a not-so-big movie.

Still, there was plenty of room to improve, and in the first moments of Red Riding: 1980, that's exactly what seems to happen. Befitting his current guise as a documentarian, James Marsh opens his third of the trilogy with a whirling montage of period footage concerning the Yorkshire Ripper, a nasty serial killer who forms the historical backbone of this film's particular narrative. Paddy Considine plays Peter Hunter, a detective who first came to Yorkshire six years earlier to investigate exactly what the hell happened at the end of 1974, and has returned for two reasons: first, to investigate the local police for perceived procedural fuck-ups in handling the Ripper case, and second, to use his not inconsiderable talents to help them catch the killer.

After the truly amazing opening sequence, 1980 settles in as a more pedestrian affair than 1974, although if pressed I'd say that Marsh is nonetheless a stronger director than Jarrold. This time around, the film was shot on 35mm, and with a wider aspect ratio than the first film, and I suspect that both of those choices were made for the director; they do however tend to make it seem a bit glossier and simpler (it's also primarily blue, while 1974 was mainly brown. Make of that what you will). But Marsh keeps the narrative moving along in a manner that Jarrold does not, even if the narrative he's working with isn't quite as compelling.

1980 is all about police corruption, in all of its guises: from the terrible secrets we now know are being kept hidden by the Yorkshire police to the personal failings of Hunter himself. There's hardly a significant character who isn't a police employee, and the much narrower perspective of this film gives a more directed focus; it also makes it quite a bit less rich, in that it is less of a social overview and more of a routine procedural. Admittedly, 1980 also has, generally, more rewarding character studies, to take the place of its mystery-that-isn't (since, armed with the knowledge of 1974, we know long before Hunter does that the Yorkshire Police are up to all kinds of no good).

If the first film can stand up as a viewing experience by itself, it's a bit harder to say that of 1980; not because it absolutely requires knowledge from the first film (it really doesn't), but because it ultimately doesn't feel complete without the third film. As a narrative, I suppose it is fairly self-contained, but without the Red Riding framework, it just doesn't feel like it has very much to say. "Sometimes, police are corrupt, and they do corrupt things to hide their corruption". That's not a new theme, and it's not dealt with in an interesting way here at all, and that's a damn shame, because it hamstrings a film that otherwise might have hit the same target as 1974, a smart thriller that isn't good enough to be a masterpiece, but is still a fun way to spend a bit of time being thrilled.

No such measured half-praise for Red Riding: 1983, a positively disastrous conclusion for the trilogy that manages to make the other two films seem worse just by sharing the same universe. David Morrissey, one of a decent number of actors to appear in all three films, takes center stage in this one: his Maurice Jobson, a Yorkshire policeman, is shaken to his core by a kidnapping that bears far too man similarities to the three missing girls from a decade ago to ignore. He's pushed into a crisis of conscience that makes him start to openly consider coming forward with the police department's unspeakable atrocities of the last generation, something that the other conspirators within the force clearly do not want to countenance. Meanwhile, a lawyer named John Piggott (Mark Addy), whose late father was himself a Yorkshire cop, has been approached by Mrs Myshkin (Beatrice Kelley) whose son Michael (Daniel Mays) was wrongfully convicted of the murder that formed the center of 1974. He signed a confession at the time, but now wants to appeal, and while Piggott is rather dubious about their chances, he agrees to do whatever he can to help out. His investigations can't help but turn up the same dark secrets that Jobson is currently freaking out about, and it turns out that they're far darker than we have so far expected.

The screenplay for this third film is much the weakest of the trilogy, thanks in no small part to a needless series of flashbacks that serve to illustrate things we mostly knew about, and answer questions we weren't asking, but that's not why 1983 is such a car-wreck. No, the real problem here is that it was handed to Anand Tucker, a man who does not direct movies, but embalms them. Perhaps you recall his suffocating musician sister biopic Hilary and Jackie; or if not, maybe you saw Shopgirl, in which a sparkling and wise Steve Martin screenplay was stomped on like a bug, and gilded with compositions so precise and airless, they'd make Wes Anderson cringe.

Something similar happens to 1983, which in keeping with the series' tracking of the evolution of image-capture technology was shot on the Red One. You never forget that for a instant; not only because of the borderline-invisible video sharpness, but because it gives Tucker a dreadful new crayon to color with: now he gets to do things with lighting and focus that you can't really achieve with film, and what he does with this arresting new ability is to make it look as much like a perfume ad as any motion picture with bloody dead bodies could ever look (a propos of nothing, this is by far the most violent of the three films). The many fine actors who have been so great in one or both of the other Red Riding films are suddenly reduced to stunted, wooden performances, abandoned by a director much more worried about making sure the light is as pretty as humanly possible than whatever the hell it is he's lighting.

Along for the ride is Barrington Pheloung, Tucker's regular composer, who gives 1983 a barbarically overwhelming score that reminds me of something a friend said in regards to Shopgirl: he scores scenes such that, if a character were eating a Big Mac, you would be convinced that it was the most dramatic Big Mac in history. I have little point in bringing this up other than the fact that I get few opportunities to type Barrington Pheloung.

As I was saying, though, it's not just Tucker; the screenplay and story are pretty dreadful here as well. The whole trilogy has had a fairly problematic representation of homosexuality that blossoms into full-on borderline-homophobia territory here; the use of foreshadowing and flashbacks rob the film of all dramatic tension and make it seem a half-hour longer than it is; the final, ultimate explanation for everything that has been happening for all three movies is trite, clichéd, and fairly offensive. I can't say more without spoiling anything, other than that I am personally ready for this particularly whipping boy to stop making so many appearances in narratives about kidnappings. It's enough to retroactively color everything that was good about the first two and make them seem far less than they were, and taken as a whole, leaves Red Riding an unsatisfying mystery that should have left its secrets better-hidden.

1974: 7/10
1980: 6/10
1983: 3/10
Red Riding, as a whole: 5/10