Originally conceived as three feature-length episodes for British television, the now-single-serving cinematic experience of The Red Riding Trilogy is a marathon in more ways than one. At six hours, it requires a true cinephile's constitution, albeit more because of its content than its running time: like the Godfather films or even the Lord of the Rings trilogy, there's so much to mull over and sort through in each individual segment that the sum total of its story is exhilarating and overwhelming. At the same time, watching all of the installments in sequence seems not only preferable but necessary in order to follow its intricacies, making the Red Riding Trilogy a surprisingly rich and remarkably singular moviegoing experience.
In the first installment, set in 1974, a hungry young reporter (Andrew Garfield) discovers a shocking conspiracy after being assigned to investigate a series of child murders. In the second, 1980, Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine) is recruited to assess the work of the West Yorkshire Constabulary to solve the murders, only to find his efforts stymied by corruption. And in 1983, Constable Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey) comes to terms with his own culpability in the Yorkshire police department's history of strong-arm tactics and corruption when his fellow officers frame an innocent man for a new spree of murders.
Although each installment is directed by a different filmmaker, the palpable mystery and melancholy of the source material exerts a unifying control over the story as a whole, and creates a fascinating tapestry of greed, desperation and inhumanity. Indeed, the film's weighty subject matter will undoubtedly be more than many can handle, less because of its particulars than because of its seeming inescapability; towards the end of the 1983 episode, I almost gave up strictly because it was so unforgivingly downbeat. But I'm grateful that I didn't, not only because the series does offer some redemption, but because this feels like a story that must be fully experienced – endured, even – in order to be appreciated, and that goes hand in hand with its radical, virtuoso ups and especially downs.
Although the connective tissue between the films follows a child killer, what truly links them together is the corruption of the Yorkshire Constabulary, which is more or less immediately acknowledged, and ultimately poisons all three protagonists' efforts to find "the truth," be it a legal resolution of the murders or the fulfillment of their own edification. Narratively it's a shrewd move to make the main character of the third film a character whom we've seen centrally in the other two, but not substantively explored before; in addition to humanizing at least one of the policemen responsible, directly or indirectly, for the continued killings, it narrows the focus of the emotional stakes of finding the culprit, and provides a deeper and more subtle commentary about the nature of corruption and authoritarian violence that, quite frankly, has seemed frivolous or superficial when examined in other movies.
By the time Jobson is participating in another forced confession in the 1983 segment, the lines between cruelty or violence and justice have been eradicated, and while our moral outrage has long since locked into place, we for the first time feel a genuine sense of the toll that moral deviation takes on, well, at least this one man's soul. What's most interesting, however, is that the films don't necessarily provide that character with a clean sense of closure or redemption, nor tidily tie up all of their loose ends. Instead, the storytelling exists as a sort of meditation of its themes rather than an undercurrent for some conventional narrative, creating a resonant emotional foundation upon which the audience can exert their own analysis and judgment of these men's behavior.
For example, the two men in 1974 and 1980 are each straightforward protagonists, people who become increasingly drawn to uncover the Constabulary's deep-rooted corruption, especially after it starts to impact them emotionally and even physically. But Garfield's reporter is amazingly cavalier about his duties, entitled and arrogant and especially oblivious to the impending danger, and later, gets involved with a mother of one of the victims. Meanwhile, Hunter's seeming commitment to both his job duties and his wife deteriorates rapidly as he immerses himself in the case, and when we discover other aspects of his personal life, and perhaps more importantly, his awareness but inactivity at a "cooperating" Constable's work to undermine his internal investigation, we begin to wonder whether he is really capable of doing what's necessary, much less if he's the right man for the job.
Ultimately, the film is probably "most" (of its many subtexts and meanings) about the institutional corruption of governing bodies, and how initial infractions to help or skip over some important detail effect the eventual deterioration of that body's integrity, and furthermore destroy the society it is designed to protect. But rather than being a screed or proselytizing text, it's a beautifully-directed, well-acted, expertly told tale that will only expand in complexity upon further viewings. In which case, it feels necessary to see The Red Riding Trilogy on the big screen, all in one sitting, at least initially. Because like those other trilogies mentioned above, there's no substitute for the cinematic experience of watching them, but in order to truly appreciate the sum of the individual parts, it's preferable - if not necessary - to absorb the whole all at once.