Though subjects of Her Majesty the Queen will tell you otherwise, the best of British television is so much better than most American television, they should be able to sell tickets to it. As if to test that theory, we now receive the Red Riding trilogy, a series of UK TV movies based on a series of true-crime suspense novels by David Peace, at the Northwest Film Forum. It seems likely that these books (there are actually four of them, though why only three were filmed is its own gritty mystery) will wind up being made into a Hollywood film sooner or later—Ridley Scott has apparently bought the rights—so now is a good time to see what the stories look like before being ruined. What they look like is this: a truly epic police procedural about the cancer of institutional corruption, the lengths the guilty will go to keep it secret, and the prices paid by individuals who try to expose it. Uh, it's also five hours long, so if you watch it all in one go, bring a snack.
Though specific characters and crimes stretch across the entire trilogy, each roughly feature-length chapter takes place during a single year and is made by a different director. And each one details, through historical fiction, the hellish frustration of a case that lingered unsolved for the better part of a decade. 1974 (directed by Julian Jarrold, who started off in Brit TV before entering the costumed ghetto of Brideshead Revisited and Becoming Jane) is a suitably murky rendition of that grimy year, shot on 16 mm and lit to suggest you're watching the perverse events unfold through a befouled aquarium. Which, in a way, is just right for the dismal environs of mid-decade Northern England, where police are baffled by the continuing activity of a brutal killer who will become known as the Yorkshire Ripper. A cocky young journalist (Andrew Garfield) stumbles onto a trail that leads not to the Ripper himself, but to the web of corrupt and inept cops who are not merely failing but possibly refusing to solve the crime, and to the industrialist (Sean Bean, never better) at the heart of the conspiracy. So many threads are left dangling at the end that the cathartic climax feels almost like misdirection.
That misdirection continues in 1980 (directed by James Marsh, Man on Wire and Wisconsin Death Trip), in which a seemingly upright, reformer-type police inspector (Paddy Considine) is brought in to head up the flagging investigation, only to discover that the manpower that should be directed toward finding the killer is instead keeping busy covering up its own internal corruption. The most frustrating of the three films—by design—1980 is a definitive statement about the plight of the individual in the face of the institution and of the insidious will of the corrupt to corrupt others.
By 1983 (directed by Anand Tucker, Hilary and Jackie, and uh, Leap Year), we are ready for resolution, and this most conventionally cop-showy of the three films delivers a welcome spell from the grimness of the first two chapters. Not to say the news is happy. Here we not only learn who did what, and when, and to whom, and why, but we discover the most elusive truth of the entire trilogy: The idea that there was only one crime spree was the true crime being perpetrated. You heave a massive sigh when the villains are finally revealed, but you wouldn't call it a sigh of relief, exactly. It's a sigh of feeling like you just remembered how fucked the world actually is.
UK critics like to call David Peace the "British James Ellroy," comparing the Red Riding novels to Ellroy's genre titles, like The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential. That's a heady mantle for any writer to live up to. But it also speaks to the larger sense that this kind of story is intrinsically American. We have traditionally done the whodunit best, from Chandler and Hammett to Briscoe and Logan. But even as Law & Order stretches into its 437th season, this most American genre has come to feel a bit predetermined. It continues to work both despite and because of the fact that it's always basically the same experience. In much the same way that Ellroy's last three novels have vaulted him away from genre stricture, the Red Riding trilogy, as an ungainly five-hour film (NWFF is showing each of the three chapters as a separate ticket, which is regrettable, since you really need to see all three), explodes the police procedural by expanding it—what if there were a case so big that it took three directors three films not simply to tell it, but to mine it for its dramatic and psychological underpinnings? It feels a lot like what David Fincher attempted to do with Zodiac. But instead of being an obsessive film about obsession so strong it obscures its object, Red Riding winds up being a profoundly English meditation about the cost and the value of patience, and about the ever-present threat of becoming too American.