A dead girl lies face-down in the dirt in the opening shot of the Red Riding trilogy, the swan wings stitched to her body acting as a final insult added to the violence and perversion that brought her there. Even without wings, she never had much chance of escaping. Divided into three parts named after the years in which they take place—1974, 1980, and 1983—this five-hour series of interlocked films, which premièred last spring on British television, adapts a series of novels by the Yorkshire-born writer David Peace. Steeped in the details of their time and place, they invite no nostalgia for a past spent in the gloomy north, where ash-covered cities and power-plant cooling towers break up a landscape whose gently rolling hills double as hiding places for unspeakably dark deeds.
Skipping the second volume of Peace’s four-book series, 1977, Tony Grisoni’s screenplay stitches together the world of the novels, then lets three directors—Julian Jarrold, James Marsh, and Anand Tucker—and three distinctive looks bring the grimness to life. Though the intricacies overwhelm the project by its too-rushed ending, Red Riding remains a remarkable achievement. Reduced to bare description, its desperate dames and crooked cops resemble the stuff of Noir 101, but the series owes more to the moral murk of James Ellroy’s L.A. and the civic spiderweb of The Wire than conventional thrillers. This is as much psycho-geography as genre exercise. The murders and other mysteries end up feeling like byproducts of the region’s difficult move away from a rural past toward an uncertain future; dead girls and plans for shopping malls have a way of getting tangled up together. Variations on the words “This is the north, where we do what we want,” get repeated throughout the trilogy, sometimes as a warning and sometimes as a cause for celebration. Red Riding’s depiction of the avarice and corruption possible when regions become kingdoms unto themselves feels simultaneously cynical and true.