The word most commonly used to malign the North of England is undoubtedly "grim", but in Red Riding it's not just the rain-soaked streets and crumbling Victorian factories that make 1970s and 1980s Yorkshire feel so forbidding, but the unrelenting cruelty of the inhabitants.
The trilogy of interlinked films, which made its debut on British television last year, begins with the image of a young girl lying face-down on a construction site with swan's wings stitched to her lifeless body. But anyone expecting the West Yorkshire Constabulary to save the day will be disappointed. Far from bringing the killer to justice, the local police protect him and pin the crime on a mentally impaired man. They even torture members of the public and falsify evidence to support their version of events.
It's the kind of appalling corruption that runs through all three films, 1974, 1980 and 1983, based on the quartet of novels by David Peace (with his second book, 1977, omitted). Each story is brought to life by a different director, with Julian Jarrold, James Marsh and Anand Tucker creating distinctly different visions. The first instalment sees a young newspaper reporter, Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield), doggedly pursuing the truth about the girl's murder, despite fierce pressure from the police, and even his own bosses, to give up his search. Unlike many movie hacks however, Dunford quickly loses interest in Breaking The Story Of His Career and increasingly becomes an agent of revenge.
Fast-forward six years and the real-life serial killer known as the Yorkshire Ripper is at large, both terrorising and fascinating the public. Frustrated by the West Yorkshire Constabulary's lack of progress, the government drafts in a detective (Paddy Considine) from nearby Manchester to review the case. Soon, he begins to suspect that the Yorkshire police are using the Ripper case to conceal a murder carried out by local officers.
The series' final chapter sees one of the constabulary's highest-ranking officers (David Morrissey) finally coming to terms with his actions of almost a decade earlier during the investigation into the girl's murder, and seeking his own form of closure. The last film also reveals details of the criminal conspiracy running through the entire series, which is responsible for most of its bloodshed. Although the very idea of a North of England noir - with crooked cops and desperate dames all producing great plumes of tobacco smoke - might sound a little contrived at first, it works rather brilliantly. This is thanks to a host of great performances, not just by its tragic heroes but also its shockingly malevolent villains. The storyline binding the series is also thoroughly disturbing and gripping.
The films manage to recreate the time and place of their setting with meticulous detail, but without a hint of nostalgia - the Yorkshire of Red Riding is not a place you would ever want to go back to. At times, however, the series feels more than a little crushed by the weight of the material. The plot is extremely complex and much of it is told out of sequence. For this reason, it's often quite difficult to understand the films on their own, and only when the third one ends does the first truly make sense.
Add to this the varying styles of three different filmmakers and some of the thickest northern accents you're ever likely to hear, and even the most vigilant viewer will be in the dark for much of the series. Also, some of the story's most interesting avenues are either not fully explored, or ignored altogether. For example, 1980 spends a huge amount of time building up the Yorkshire Ripper's elusiveness, but when he is finally caught there is disappointingly little explanation about how it happened.
But despite the series' narrative tics, its slightly scatter-shot storytelling is actually likely to make it more appealing with repeat viewings. There's also something about the trilogy's unlikely mix of gritty realism with overblown nihilism and melodrama that works far better than it ought to. What emerges is five hours of extremely bloody and convoluted crime drama that remarkably manages to have something interesting to say about the time and place of its setting.
Although it is hard to believe that the horrific and violent world of Red Riding ever existed in England, the story makes you understand how powerful members of society in a period of post-industrial transition might take not just the law into their own hands, but morality itself.