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.