I don’t know about you, but when I think of British police officers, I generally conjure up visions of friendly, unarmed bobbies and sly, cunning detectives, a la Sherlock Holmes. Or, at least that’s the way I used to think before being bombarded with five hours of Brit cops so ruthlessly crooked they make the guys on “The Shield” look like McGruff.
I don’t know about you, but when I think of British police officers, I generally conjure up visions of friendly, unarmed bobbies and sly, cunning detectives, a la Sherlock Holmes.
Or, at least that’s the way I used to think before being bombarded with five hours of Brit cops so ruthlessly crooked they make the guys on “The Shield” look like McGruff.
That’s the power of the “Red Riding Trilogy,” a group of films that like the aforementioned “Shield,” take real-life incidents of police corruption and enhance them to the nth degree with enough pulp to open a paper mill.
Drawn from a series of four novels by best-selling author David Peace and turned into a miniseries last year by the BBC, the “Red Riding Trilogy” now makes its way to the States, where it’s being shown both on pay-per-view and at select theaters.
Understandably, folks might be reluctant to pay more than 20 bucks to see what our friends across the pond essentially saw for free, but I’m here to tell you it’s worth it.
Patience is required, however, especially early on when tedium threatens to set in as pieces of the puzzle are introduced and established. Some pay off quickly; others linger almost to the very end.
It’s the quality of the acting, though, that snatches you by the throat and won’t let go. Whether it’s familiar faces like Mark Addy and Sean Bean or virtual unknowns like Andrew Garfield and Warren Clarke, all forgo pretense in favor of the realism necessary to allow you to become thoroughly absorbed in a gritty story in which the sun and humanity refuse to shine.
To a fault, Tony Grisoni’s three screenplays adhere closely to the noir tropes of femme fatales, double-crosses and all sorts of sordid behavior in and out of the bedroom. And true to the genre, there are few survivors after all the bullets and verbal assaults subside.
For the few that do live to tell their tales, you’re there right alongside them, exhausted and happy to be alive.
In fact, it’s so satisfying that you’re willing to forgive the occasional slips into melodrama, as romance and martyrdom begin to emit an odor of contrivance. Of course, that’s bound to happen when faced with the monumental task of paring Peace’s novels down without severing the various threads required to tie the three films together.
Chief among those filaments is an obsessive hunt for the truth, be it a hungry young reporter (Garfield) with visions of Woodward and Bernstein dancing in his head in the first chapter, “1974”; a straight-arrow cop (Paddy Considine) running into the mouth of the beast in the second installment, “1980”; or a corrupt detective (David Morrissey) who suddenly gains a conscience in the last, “1983.”
It’s fascinating to compare and contrast how each of the three actors (each working with a different director) chooses to portray their character’s moral and existential crisis. It’s even more fascinating to understand how our perceptions of each evolve along with them.
The trilogy’s grandest trick, however, lies in its ability to leave you feeling uplifted after witnessing so much pain, sorrow and greed.
Initially, I would have thought that impossible, seeing how “1974,” directed by Julian Jarrold (“Becoming Jane”), revolves around an investigation into the kidnapping, rape and murder of three preteen girls in the Northern town of West Yorkshire.
As you’d expect, it’s incredibly sad to watch; more so once we discover that one of the town’s most prominent businessmen (Bean) and the half-dozen cops he has on his payroll might be complicit. It fills you full of dread; especially after we’re introduced to the grief stricken mother of one of the young girls. She’s played by Rebecca Hall (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”), who further solidifies her place as Britain’s next great actress with a turn that will break your ticker the same way she breaks the heart of Garfield’s cub reporter, Eddie Dunford, who all-too predictably falls for her during his ill-advised quest to solve the murders.
Their romance feels forced, but their feelings of anger and guilt do not.
Similar feelings course through the veins of Considine’s Peter Hunter, a saintly detective from Manchester sent up to Yorkshire in “1980” to help root out the corruption and nab “The Ripper,” a serial killer who has declared open season on prostitutes.
The role fits the sad-eyed Considine to a T, too, proving he can brood with the best of them, as his personal and professional life quickly begin to unravel under the iron thumb of the West Yorkshire cops. But as solid as Considine is, he’s still not enough to prevent the overly talky “1980” (directed by “Man on Wire’s” James Marsh) from being the least satisfying of the three films.
Any letdown, however, quickly dissipates once “1983,” directed by Anand Tucker (“Hilary and Jackie”), kicks in. While it’s not quite as good as “1974,” it more than dazzles, as it begins to tie up loose ends and reveal truths about who is behind the decade-long murder spree plaguing the not-so-fair haven of Yorkshire.
It also features superb performances by Addy as a lawyer seeking to free a wrongly accused client and Morrissey as a dirty cop suddenly getting the itch to make amends.
They also represent the one ray of hope amid the blood and squalor that are so much a part of a depressingly little blue-collar burgh where the most identifiable trait is the ominous looking nuclear power plant.
In most towns, such a facility would be considered a significant health hazard. But in Yorkshire, where death is an almost constant companion, it’s the least of their worries.
Patriot Ledger writer Al Alexander may be reached at email@example.com.
RED RIDING: 1974 (Not rated.) Cast includes Andrew Garfield, Sean Bean and Rebecca Hall. Directed by Julian Jarrold. 3.5 stars out of 4
RED RIDING: 1980 (Not rated.) Cast includes Paddy Considine and Sean Harris. Directed by James Marsh. 2.5 stars out of 4
RED RIDING: 1983 (Not rated.) Cast includes Mark Addy and David Morrissey. Directed by Anand Tucker. 3 stars out of 4
Note: Each film has a separate admission and/or rental fee.