Here’s a word of advice to those considering epic-length theatrical film presentations, like the 300 total minutes of the Red Riding trilogy: It’s really not enough for your product to be good. It’d better be freaking awesome.
Every once in a while, a distributor takes a chance on a multi-part release, one that requires a serious time commitment from a potential viewer. And it’s generally for something targeting an art-house audience, like the two-part release of Steven Soderbergh’s Che in 2008. So, considering the fairly tiny potential audience, merely adequate word of mouth (again, see Che) just ain’t gonna cut it. You can’t blame a viewer for wanting to step into sunlight after five hours and have a more profound reaction than, “Yeah, that was all right.”
Originally produced for British television, this adaptation of David Peace’s series of novels definitely swings for the fences. The three parts, each roughly 100 minutes, take on individual years during which the West Yorkshire police force is dealing with high-profile cases—and, as a matter of course, employing corrupt tactics to protect their own interests and those of their powerful friends. In 1974, crime reporter Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield) covers the disappearance of local schoolgirls, while also exploring the manipulations of real-estate tycoon John Dawson (Sean Bean). 1980 finds Manchester cop Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine) heading up an external investigation into the West Yorkshire detectives’ difficulties solving the “Yorkshire Ripper” serial murders. And in 1983, another young girl disappears, with Inspector Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey) looking for a connection to the 1974 cases.
While the three films are certainly intended to build toward a cumulative effect, they’re also constructed as stories that can generally stand alone. Indeed, screenwriter Tony Grisoni and the three directors— Julian Jarrold for 1974, James Marsh for 1980, Anand Tucker for 1983—almost construct them as parallel accounts of the same basic concept: a flawed, redemption-hungry%uFFFDhero tries to break through the West Yorkshire police force’s mob-like power over its territory. Dunford, from 1974, is a local boy returning to the Yorkshire newspaper with his tail between his legs after a failed effort at being a writer in London; Hunter, in 1980, is a clean cop with the blemish of an extramarital affair with a co-worker; and in 1983, broken-down lawyer John Piggott (Mark Addy) gets a chance to defend the slow-witted kid railroaded into confessing to the 1974 abductions. While a few characters carry through all three episodes—including the morally conflicted Jobson, his ruthless boss (Warren Clarke) and a gay hustler (Robert Sheehan)—Red Riding is less a single continuous narrative than a series of variations on a theme.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach—except that it undercuts the epic scope that seems to be the point of the presentation in the first place. With each of the volumes representing an individual novel, Grisoni still leaves the impression that a lot of significant background material was left on a cutting-room floor. The relationship between Dunford and the mother of one of the 1974 kidnapping victims (Rebecca Hall) feels rushed and unconvincing; the split focus in 1983 between Piggott and Jobson leads to the same impression. Of the three, 1980 ends up the most independently satisfying—both because Hunter’s story actually feels complete, and because Marsh (the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire) does such an efficient job with%uFFFDhis visual storytelling.
But even if each of the three films were just a little bit better, I’m not convinced that would be as significant as the entirety of the Red Riding saga adding up to something with more of a kick. The conclusion of 1983 proves to be a colossal disappointment, because it steers the focus away from the West Yorkshire force as the tale’s primary “villain.” It’s one thing to note, morally unsatisfying though it may be, that the corruption continued beyond the scope of this story; it’s another to let it drift into the rearview mirror and end on a minor character’s assertion of surviving this ugly place. An epic needs to earn its hours of our time with a summation that delivers not a comma, or even a period, but an exclamation point. In the case of Red Riding, it’s actually a little like a question mark: “After 300 minutes, that’s all there is?”
RED RIDING: 1974
RED RIDING: 1980
RED RIDING: 1983
David Morrissey, Paddy Considine, Andrew Garfield