Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Ripper Street: A Fresh Take on Old Crimes

Jerome Flynn, Matthew Macfadyen and Adam Rothenberg star in Ripper Street

You can’t swing a remote control these days without hitting a period drama. From Downton Abbey, to Mad Men, to Copper, it seems that TV producers and TV audiences are interested in stories that happened ‘back then.’ The dividing line of these period offerings is whether the television produced mobilizes feelings of nostalgia and wants us to long for those times, or whether the stories are told precisely to disturb that warm and fuzzy feeling for the days of hats, cigars, and clear social structures. The new BBC/BBC America co-production, Ripper Street, falls firmly into this second category. The Victorian-era crime drama opens a door into a distinctly gruesome version of Conan Doyle’s London: a re-imagining which upsets and reconfigures our set notions of the past. It is easy to imagine Holmes and Watson moving about in hansom cabs, solving their own mysteries just five urban miles west of Ripper Street's Whitechapel district. Mind you, I was inadvertently well-prepared to imagine just that, having recently finished Anthony Horowitz’s novel The House of Silk, a faithful and gritty take on Conan Doyle’s characters and setting. Horowitz tells a dark story perfectly in sync with the spirit of Richard Warlow’s Ripper Street – both tell period stories geared towards an audience willing to glimpse just a little deeper in the depths of human depravity than previous generations.

It’s 1889, and London’s East End is still reeling from the effects of the grisly Jack the Ripper killings. Jack has gone silent, but the repercussions of those murders are still emerging: both for a traumatized population and for the policemen who failed to catch him. Such is the setting of Ripper Street. And it is gripping stuff.

Matthew Macfadyen and Jerome Flynn
The first narrative innovation of Ripper Street is setting the series six months after the murder of Jack the Ripper’s last known victim. We enter the scene faced with the aftermath of those murders, and more importantly, the on-going failure of the London police to identify and catch Jack. It is less about “Jack” himself than the effect – both real and imagined – of the man and his crimes, as if the Ripper had opened a dark door and released a pervasive evil onto the streets of Whitechapel. This is the context in which we meet our trio of investigators – Detective Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen, MI-5, Pride & Prejudice), Sergeant Bennet Drake (Jerome Flynn, Game of Thrones), and a former Pinkerton agent and Reid’s de facto medical examiner, the American Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg) – each haunted by their own dark pasts.

Macfadyen’s Inspector Reid is based on the real detective who headed Whitechapel’s fabled H Division at the time of the Ripper murders. This is in contrast to most fictionalized adaptations of the Ripper story, which focus on Scotland Yard’s Detective Abberline (portrayed here by Clive Russell, and elsewhere by the likes of Michael Caine, Hugo Weaving, and even Johnny Depp). In Ripper Street, whatever Detective Abberline may have been prior to the Ripper investigation, he is the portrait of a tired and perhaps even broken man. Reid on the other hand is eager to embrace the future, especially if it will keep him from living in the past. Ripper Street’s portrayal of its time and the technological innovations of that period is also a story about how people meet the future. For all that he has seen, Inspector Reid himself still has the enthusiasm of schoolboy for new inventions, even as those innovations play a dark role in the crimes under his jurisdiction. This ambivalence comes to a head in the pilot episode, with Reid confessing to an evil man (who has been filming a horrific crime with his self-designed “moving picture machine”): “Whatever happens, whatever punishment is seen fit for all this, that is extraordinary.” You believe him.  Reid can see through the blight and the horror to the future on the other side. As the series continues, it becomes clear that everything Reid does is a valiant, if often fruitless, struggle to secure that future for all under his authority.

With a manner right off the set of Deadwood, and penchant for drugs, gambling, and whores, Homer Jackson is the explicit enigma of the group. We learn quickly that he is not quite who he says he is, and that there are unseen depths to his relationship is with “Long Susan”, the sharp-tongued Madame of a nearby brothel (portrayed by MyAnna Buring, Downton Abbey). The complicated friendship between Reid and Jackson is one of the show’s most important relationships, and the plot arc of the season is designed to deepen and test it. Reid becomes more and more aware of Jackson’s checkered past, but continues to trust both the man and his expertise. For all the intensity of the plots, the relationship between the two characters gives room for some humour and even playful banter. "This is Captain Jackson,” Reid says with menace to a recently injured and highly vulnerable suspect in the second episode. “My surgeon. He is …. American." The moment produces a quick burst of laughter in the viewer, but it quickly turns far darker, as Reid orders Jackson to go Jack Bauer on the man in pursuit of some urgent information. (That perhaps now-clich├ęd ticking-time-bomb scenario somehow plays less formulaic and slightly less disturbing across the distance of a century.)

Lucy Cohu as Deborah Goran
And this show is not simply a period procedural, or CSI: Whitechapel as some critics have playfully called it. (Though the image of Inspector Reid as a late-Victorian Gil Grissom, in a bowler hat, is amusing to imagine.) If anything, it brings new life to those now-familiar tropes. Without infrared lights or DNA analysis, its depictions of early forensic science are a much-needed reminder that it's sharp minds and not technology that really matters in the end. Whatever its well-honed procedural elements, Ripper Street firmly sets its people, and its story, in a historical and geographical context. Throughout the first season Sergeant Drake’s experience as a British soldier in Egypt and the Sudan and the horrors that he witnessed there invoke the violence that marks the closing decades of the British Empire. (You have no doubt that whatever horrors meet him every day as a cop pale next to what’s knocking around inside his head.) There is also a fairly well-informed and well-written Jewish presence in the series, a must for any story set in East London of that era. The Jewish characters are not simply window-dressing in a parade of East End characters; they include both refugees from recent pogroms in Russia, British Jews of long standing, and Jewish involvement in the nascent, and often violent, labour movement in London. (The latter being the primary plot of the show’s sixth episode.)

Miss Goran (Lucy Cohu), the manager of an explicitly Jewish orphanage in the East End, is a surprising recurring character throughout the season, as well as a tempting romantic interest of Reid’s her keen awareness of the problems of society makes her one of Reid’s frequent interlocutors. Her Jewishness, however un-religious, stands in fascinating juxtaposition to the tragedy-induced devotion of Reid’s wife to her Christian faith and mission.

One of the Ripper Street’s most articulated themes is controlled chaos, which plays out not only on the streets but in the souls of almost every character. As each tries to contain the demons within them, they each, in their own way, struggle to keep the external beasts at bay: with Reid, Jackson, and Drake at the centre, and Reid’s wife Emily (Amanda Hale, The Crimson Petal and the White) and Miss Goran working at the periphery. No-one ever really debates the relative merits of their differing strategies of containment, but the tension inhabits almost every scene.

Some people simply don’t like period pieces, viewing them as, of necessity, precious and contrived. Ripper Street is not that kind of period piece. It is a story that uses all the nostalgic tropes to show how they are corrupted. The excellent writing and cinematography, as well as the skill of the actors, combine to inspire in the audience the sense of foreboding and imminent chaos felt by the characters. This is the London of Sherlock Holmes, but it is a new world as well, one full of tragedy, unapologetically evil intent, and often lacking in justice. I would highly recommend this show to those who are willing to reconsider a prejudice against period pieces, to those who enjoy period pieces, and to those viewing couples in search of something that will intrigue them both.

A BBC/BBC American co-production, Ripper Street’s 8-episode first season aired on the BBC and BBC America in January and February, running simultaneously on Canada’s SPACE channel. The DVD of the show’s first season is being released next week.  Ripper Street will return for a second season in 2014.

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.

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