Film serials go back to the earliest days of cinema — think “Perils of Pauline” cliffhangers or the exploits of French criminal mastermind “Fantômas,” unspooling in theaters in weekly installments. More recently, a new kind of serial cinema has emerged. Less reminiscent of those silent movies or the Hollywood franchises of Harry Potter or James Bond — themselves a kind of large-scale, ever-expanding serial — these news works are film compilations more akin to the networked complexity of the best of contemporary episodic television. It’s no surprise then that the latest example of the form, the British import “Red Riding Trilogy,” was originally made for UK broadcast. (The film series will appear this week in U.S. theaters, but fittingly, on VOD, as well.)
What separates these movies from say, the further adventures of Indiana Jones or Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather” trilogy, is that the uniting force tying them all together isn’t an individual hero but instead a setting — e.g. the mean Baltimore streets and bureaucracies of “The Wire” — or a theme, or an all-encompassing mood.
But they’re not television, either. Though originally conceived to air on TV, the creators of the “Red Riding Trilogy” were filmmakers, and always thought of the work as closer to cinema. Nicolas Winding Refn, director of the “Pusher” trilogy — another connected collection of movies, centering on the desperate criminal underground in Denmark and made in 1996, 2004 and 2005 — also eschews television comparisons. He says TV would reduce “the stillness, the complexity” of the work. “It would be more traditional,” he explains. “By making them as features, I was able to make them part of an organization with individual units.”
Likewise, the “Red Riding” films, based on a quartet of novels by David Peace, work like a set of subatomic particles — functioning both alone and as a single unit, colliding and connecting with one another. (The chemistry term “multivalent” has been used to describe this type of intricate sequential cinema.)
All set in the same murky, neo-noir environs of Yorkshire, England over the course of nine years, the “Red Riding Trilogy” begins with “1977,” which follows a young hotshot reporter investigating a series of child murders. The second, “1980,” is about a Manchester inspector’s inquiry into the Yorkshire police’s handling of another serial killer. The third, “1983,” dovetails with the first in its chronicle of a guilt-ridden Yorkshire chief detective who put the wrong man behind bars for the ’77 killings. Minor characters lurking on the fringes of the first part take on greater prominence in the second and third installments. In the later episodes, flashbacks to the earlier films further interweave the tales. And yet each one also stands on its own.
“I was trying to shape each one individually and then at the same time keep enough strands running across them,” says screenwriter Tony Grisoni, who wrote the three screenplays, in addition to another, “1974,” that was never filmed because of financial constraints. “So gradually you build up a huge, multi-layered world that is not finite, where you feel that these people have other lives outside of the drama and you’re constantly being surprised by who knows who and what the connections are.”
Repeat viewing of the films, Grisoni hopes, will elicit new discoveries. “A lot of it is left in the dark, and that was a central part of the darkness of those narratives,” he explains, likening the stories to 17th century Jacobian tragedy, with its conspiracies, corruption and violence. “It was never just about the terrible things you witnessed; it was more about the terrible things you didn’t witness.”
This open-ended intermixing of narratives and characters, coincidences and connections, has its own links to the work of Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski. His landmark 1989 10-part Polish television series “Decalogue,” based on the Ten Commandments, and his much-acclaimed “Three Colors” trilogy, inspired by the French national motto “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” are similarly constructed as singular parts of a whole, with intermingled characters and a serial form that is itself integral to the experience of the projects.
As Annette Insdorf, author of “Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieślowski,” puts it, by choosing a minimum of three stories, Kieslowski “opens things up, implying an open horizon, a multiplicity of perspectives.” And in so doing, he “implies a refusal to choose one as the sole reality.”