The bodies of the dead largely outweigh those of the living in this curious triptych of films based on a quartet of novels by David Pearce, each a separate piece from a specific time period set around the infamous Yorkshire Ripper murders in the north of England in the ’70s and ’80s.
The first film, 1974, directed by Julian Jarrold, concerns Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield), a young journalist who attempts to uncover a dense network of corrupt officials and police officers (“This is the North,” one yells at Dunford right before throwing him out the back of a moving van, “we do what we want!”) in connection to the disappearance of several young girls — one of whom is found murdered and mutilated at the construction site of land-owning kingpin John Daws (Sean Bean), whose every desire seems ready at his whim.
The second, 1980,” directed by James Marsh, focuses on Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine) the head of a newly created task force to track down the killer — now dubbed the Yorshire Ripper by the local press — who may or may not be connected to the abductions of the younger girls from years before. Working with a handpicked squad, Hunter runs afoul of the same corrupt cops from the previous film, while trying to maintain a professional relationship with Helen Marshall (Maxine Peake), the female member of his team, with whom he has had a past affair.
The final piece, 1983, directed by Anand Tucker, attempts to tie up at least some of the various plot threads the first two films set up, giving us two unlikely heroes in the process: John Piggot (Mark Addy), a plus-sized lawyer who attempts an appeal for the simple-minded young man (Daniel Mays) the police coerced into confessing for the kidnapping and murder of the children; and Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey), one of the original corrupt officers, who grows more and more disenchanted with his part in the scheme.
The films work more or less in harmony, but in many not-so-obvious ways. While there are connecting themes and characters (and certainly, the dank, morbid hills of North England as a backdrop), the carry over is relatively slight, save the prevailing sense of doom and corruption that fills the air. Some of this is due to the high body count of characters — each film is like a season ending episode of a violent HBO series, with tensions rising into violent action and subsequent repercussions (“Hands flat on the table” might become the “Is it safe?” of the age). In fact, if the trilogy’s style and methods resemble anything in particular from America, it’s HBO’s (and American television’s) single greatest achievement: “The Wire.” Like “The Wire,” the filmmakers refuse to dumb down the material, the plotlines and characters swirl around in a haze of seemingly unconnected scenes and rapid, dauntingly accented bites of dialogue. Things happen that we don’t comprehend or fully understand, if at all, until much later in subsequent scenes — or films. Still, the atmosphere holds the entire contraption together admirably, never letting up on your psyche.
By the end of the third film, which does achieve a modicum of restorative resolution, you’ve been buried up to your neck in muck and misery for so long, it almost feels like a benediction. The effect is chilling and more or less relentless. Dead bodies have been layered on top of one another to the point that you can begin to feel the awful weight of humanity’s unceasing ability to exploit and destroy itself. An endless catalogue of crimes, murders, death, bones, blood and destruction, burnt to ash or buried deep in the ground, where, seemingly, no good can escape.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.comand his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.