If we are to believe the Red Riding trilogy, the prevailing atmospheric condition in 1974 West Yorkshire was a cigarette haze, as damp as atomized gin. Social rites were limited to cremations and admonishments, the latter sometimes being accompanied by a stream of piss to the auditor’s trousers. Sex proceeded in jump cuts, which began in dim concrete pubs and blacked out on random furniture. It was an interruptible place, which a young man apprehended in the intervals between ignorance and oblivion.

West Yorkshire in 1980, by contrast, was a place that a middle-aged man could observe steadily through a rain-spattered windshield. Evidence of disorder was now officially posted on billboards and collected in files (however questionable), as well as unofficially spray-painted on walls and circulated in photographs (which surfaced as awkwardly as half-forgotten murder victims); and so the corruption and violence seemed as if they ought to be legible. Readings of it proceeded straight-on, like a Direct Cinema documentary, or an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation in a police station’s back office. The prevailing atmospheric condition was menace, broken here and there by the ironic glow of Christmas lights or the gleam of brass fittings and social niceties at a hotel’s front desk.

Local secrets did not actually become communicable in West Yorkshire until 1983, when the prevailing condition split into voice-overs, flashbacks and crane shots. Points of view multiplied and converged, with lines of sight originating in a genteel front parlor (used for séances), a prison holding cell (used for interviews with a terrified inmate) and a disheveled bachelor’s quarters (used by the disheveled bachelor for sleeping, entertaining and pretending to run a law office). In its social psychology, the region was now characterized by a repetition compulsion, manifested in the urge to relive events from nine years before. The atmosphere was clear, except for occasional flurries of symbolic dove feathers.

A tale of abductions and murders and payoffs and cover-ups, which cascade and swirl through the years but ultimately flow together, the much-praised Red Riding trilogy emerged from a single literary source (a sequence of novels by David Peace), was adapted by one screenwriter (Tony Grisoni), is performed throughout by the same roster of actors but takes the form of three distinct feature-length films, each with its own director, artistic team, mood and style. Has anything ever been exactly like it? Neither a standard television mini-series (though originally shown on Channel 4) nor a standard auteurist anthology (though it plays up the signature on each installment), this hybrid of true-crime miserabilism and fairy-tale morality is also a hybrid of production methods and aesthetic assumptions, and so is remarkable both for its scale and its experimentalism.

If I had to identify a single intelligence behind this project (the usefulness of such identifications being one of the certainties cast into doubt by Red Riding), I would point not to David Peace but to Michael Winterbottom, the determinedly mutable filmmaker whose Revolution Films co-produced the trilogy. He seems the most likely person to have urged that the elements be tossed together, to see what would come out; but that makes him an instigator, not an author. Though each installment might conventionally be labeled as "a film by" its director–Julian Jarrold, James Marsh or Anand Tucker–Red Riding as a whole seems to come not from any individual but (for better and for worse) from a deeply guilt-ridden collective consciousness.

The English mind, the trilogy suggests, imagines the nation’s decayed industrial north as being collusive, self-enclosed and contemptuous of outsiders, even when they’re native sons (like the ambitious young newspaper reporter who returns to Yorkshire in 1974) or experienced old hands (like the police inspector who comes back to the region in 1980). These snoops are marked men; but as men, they still have half a chance, unlike the women who stray through this wilderness. As little girls, they are often spirited away, either to vanish entirely or else to turn up dead and grotesquely mutilated (as happens to a child in a hooded red raincoat in 1974). As adolescents, they are turned into prostitutes and exposed as prey to the Yorkshire Ripper (see 1980). And if they should survive into maturity, they become self-hating sluts, raving lunatics, bravely patched-together mistresses or wounded, secret-bearing wives–which is pretty much the range of options on view through 1983.

As one feminist fence-scrawl declares in the 1980 installment, Men Are the Enemy. This judgment, under the circumstances, seems inarguable, even though some enemies prove to be conscience-stricken and so are eligible for a romantic interlude, about which they can feel bad. The blundering, overmatched young reporter of 1974 (Andrew Garfield), with his pouty, underslung lower lip and weedy hair that looks heavier than his torso, can’t resist throwing himself onto a boozed-up but sleek-bodied blonde (Rebecca Hall), despite her being the unrecovered mother of one of the vanished girls–or perhaps because of it. Compared with him, the internal-affairs inspector of 1980 (Paddy Considine) is altogether more sober and principled; but when he assembles a personal team to investigate the West Yorkshire police and their handling of the Ripper case, he composes his long face into an especially waxy rectitude and summons to his employ a not-quite-former lover (Maxine Peake), who is pleased to enjoy such confidence, sir. Most troubled of all, because most in the know, is the West Yorkshire detective (David Morrissey) near the core of 1983. When the time comes for this enemy of womankind to fall into a clinch, he finds himself snogging a trance medium (Saskia Reeves) who greatly disturbs him by somehow knowing where the bodies are buried.

Varying directorial styles cannot disguise the formulaic sameness of these liaisons amid the mayhem. And when you consider how the only blameless characters in the trilogy are either dead children or idiots (named Myshkin, no less), you may begin to wonder if style itself is something arbitrary: a random and meaningless choice made within the fog of universal corruption. Here in the north, where an archetypal brick-row-house disappointment takes its purest form, all sex is dirty and all money is dirty, and the do-gooders pretending to clean up the mess may be the filthiest of all; so look at the place any way you like, because one’s as good as another.

If this is indeed what the Red Riding trilogy reveals about the English self-image (including the suspicion that style is ultimately futile, or French), then a review must end here, given that the only commentator who would really be equal to the subject, D.H. Lawrence, is now unavailable. A pity; I’d love to know what he’d say about a belief that Yorkshire society is inescapably brutish, except when the spirit world sets innocence free and banishes the big, bad wolf from the emerald moors.

But if you’ll allow a less expert interpreter to continue:

However thick the trilogy’s slab of conventional grimness, however thin and unpersuasive the underlying layer of sentimentality, the three films in succession do put you through an experience that’s worth more than the five hours or so you’ll invest in them. The play of perspectives shifts intricately, as major characters recede toward the margins while ostensibly minor ones work their way toward the center, unexplained incidents fade into memory and then pop back into view, settings that at first seemed banal grow more and more evocative with each circling back. Nobody within the plot (or plots, actually) fully controls the situation, though many people try, and more than one revelation is required to resolve all the mysteries; yet there’s an emotional unity to the story, achieved through a single grand gesture that arches from film to film. Thrashing disorientation gives way to obsession and adult remorse and then to an appalled, relieved understanding.

This is suspense, all right, though not the kind that most crime-story audiences sign up for. The first glimmer of comprehension isn’t granted to you until halfway through the second installment; daylight doesn’t break until the third. But if the narrative gamble in this scheme is enormous, the rewards are commensurate. They include not only the visceral force of the action, the nightmarish grotesquerie of the most threatening characters, the unchallengeable authenticity of the locale and the faultless performances of the entire cast but also those flourishes by Jarrold, Marsh and Tucker. Even though the directorial signatures don’t greatly matter, the differences in style turn out to mean something after all.

And so does the impression that the Red Riding trilogy reflects a certain national mindset. Although the films never mention political affairs, no viewer in Britain will fail to notice that the installments span the years of Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power, nor will it escape anyone that a key villain in the story–a strutting, chesty real-estate developer (Sean Bean)–is exactly the sort of high-spirited money-spinner in whom Thatcher saw the hope of the British economy.

I wouldn’t want to make too much of this implicit hint that larger forces are at work in the trilogy’s West Yorkshire. But still, the ghost of a memory of Thatcher’s smash-and-grab capitalism floated into my mind, chilling me, during one of the most breathtaking scenes of 1974: the one in which two thugs throw open the back door of a van, revealing a view of the moors stretching into the distance, and boast to their latest victim, "This is the North. We do what we want."

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By coincidence, the Red Riding trilogy has come out just when Warner Bros. is releasing its Americanization of another politically inflected British television drama, Edge of Darkness. First broadcast in 1985 on the BBC, this mini-series won a large audience and several BAFTA awards with its story of corporate malfeasance, government secrets and threats of cataclysmic war. Now the director of that series, Martin Campbell, has his name above the title of a revised, big-screen Edge of Darkness, though without the movie’s coming anywhere close to being "a film by." Who’s really responsible? I count two new writers (William Monahan and Andrew Bovell, who may or may not have met on the job), three producers, five executive producers and (perhaps most important of all) one famously headstrong leading man, Mel Gibson.

That Mel will be a decent guy without fancy airs, that he will suffer blow upon blow and yet carry on, that despite his pains he will gun down every last bad guy in the final reel–all this will be known in advance by even the most casual moviegoer, just by glancing at the poster for Edge of Darkness. The surprise is that the proceedings are highly watchable for the first act or two. The action starts abruptly, and with something better than a bang, when Mel’s grown daughter comes home to visit him in Boston (he is, for present purposes, an Irish police detective) and is almost at once struck down. Many of the scenes that immediately follow dwell on the father’s grief, and are moving in their wordless concentration on small gestures and simple objects. But by the third act, you’re back to thriller as usual, with someone jumping out to yell "Boo!" every five minutes. By the fifth act, your foot’s fallen asleep. By act six, your mind has drifted back to the beginning of the picture, when Mel had the hairstyle of Mike Ditka in his prime. Now he resembles the reanimated Boris Karloff; but even in a condition of death-warmed-over, he plugs the bad guys without aiming.

And what’s left of the substance of the original Edge of Darkness? Only the notion that government officials and corporate big shots might be up to no good, the sort that Greenpeace-style activists might try to expose but that would be more appropriately handled by a 9/11 truth commission, or (better still) a vigilante cop with complete faith in the afterlife. I can’t say I recommend this solution–but its moments of inadvertent humor did remind me of how much I liked Mel in Chicken Run.