Monday, October 24, 2011

History is a Killer: Whitechapel

London’s Whitechapel neighborhood was originally named for a church that would eventually be destroyed in World War II, but it quickly gained a reputation for crime and vice. While former residents include Lenin and Joseph Merrick, it is Jack the Ripper who will always be most closely linked to the district in the public imagination. Whenever a murder happens there, the so-called “Ripperologists” come out of the woodwork smelling a copycat. Unfortunately for one ambitious Detective Inspector, this time they are correct. A gruesome series of murders will either make or break his career in Whitechapel (promo here), a stylish new mystery series written by Ben Court and Caroline Ip, which debuts this Wednesday on BBC America’s Dramaville showcase.

Well-connected Joseph Chandler is on the fast-track. All he has to do is clear a murder case and he can proceed to the next level. Obligingly, his superior officer, Commander Anderson, assigns him to the first case that comes up. It happens to be in Whitechapel. Initially, Chandler’s new sergeant, DS Ray Miles assumes the victim’s abusive husband simply went too far. Unfortunately, his alibi checks out. Shortly thereafter, Ripperologist Edward Buchan presents himself, offering his services to the team. Miles has no truck with these self-promoting amateurs, but Chandler is more indulgent.

Indeed, the two men do not mesh well, at first. Chandler is a by-the-booker, who insists his team wear ties when on the job. Miles has seen plenty of fast-trackers come and go, so he would prefer to go about his job as he sees fit. He also has some anger management issues rooted in his painful family history, which will come to the fore in Whitechapel’s second story arc.

Due to complications in the Ripper case, Chandler is on the outs with his Commander as the fourth episode opens. However, he has won the trust of his team, even forging something of a friendship with the crusty Miles. In another mixed blessing, the Detective Inspector is told to be ready for another high profile case headed his way. Like clockwork, a badly butchered body is soon fished out of the river, bearing similarities to one of the victims of the notorious Kray gangster twins.

Of course, Buchan (who is still hovering about) recognizes the pattern immediately, but Miles is having none of it. The Kray connection hits quite close to home for him. His father was a small time thief on the outskirts of the Krays’ world, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Unlike the secretive Ripper copycat, the prime suspects in the Kray killings are not anonymous. Rather, they crave attention, much like original Krays. In fact, they claim to be Krays themselves—the secret offspring of Ronnie Kray and a devoted fan.

Court and Ip cleverly integrate the “canonical murders” of the historic cases into Chandler’s contemporary inquiries, maintaining a genuine sense of mystery throughout the first storyline and ratcheting up the angst and paranoia in the second. They really put Chandler through the wringer, giving him some unusual demons that surface during the second case.

What really makes Whitechapel crackle and hum is the evolving dynamic between Chandler and Miles. Rupert Penry-Jones keeps Chandler just on the right side of uptight, ultimately becoming a very human protagonist. Phil Davis is compulsively watchable as Miles, projecting ferocious intelligence, while hinting at deep-seated insecurities. They develop some smart and convincing chemistry that should make Whitechapel a longstanding series. However, a little of Steve Pemberton as the pompous Buchan goes a considerably long way.

Featuring a talented supporting ensemble, including Alex Jennings (perhaps best known for playing Prince Charles in The Queen) as Commander Anderson, Whitechapel nails the gritty cop aesthetic. Highly cinematic, directors S.J. Clarkson and David Evans both build the tension steadily and effectively in their respective story-arcs. Evans also quite deftly handles the Craig Parkinson’s work as both modern day Kray Twins, convincingly showing them interacting together in several scenes.

Whitechapel’s first series (technically two combined into one by BBC America), definitely leaves viewers eager for more. Fortunately London has plenty of infamous murders to draw upon (Sweeney Todd maybe?). In fact, another season of Whitechapel has been commissioned in Britain, this time as a two-story six-episode run, in the manner of its initial American broadcast run. As a result, viewers should have no reservations investing in the Whitechapel detectives. Highly recommended for British mystery fans, it premieres this Wednesday (10/26) on BBC America.

(Photos: Carnival Film & Television)