11/02/2012

Unsafe as Houses

Whitechapel Season Three: Episodes 1 and 2

It’s not every (or indeed any other) series that can finish a story with the main detective clearing up the office by placing bits of paper in the bin. Indeed there are not many police series that would spook and tease us with supernatural imagery and then offer a reveal that will make you think twice before hiring a decorator again. And as for the fact that this police squad have a resident criminologist with old paper files advising them from the basement- well, that could only be Whitechapel. Somehow it straddles the line between bizarre freak show, police series and historical drama all at once. It doesn’t always quite work but isn’t it fantastic that it tries?

After a terrific first series and a slightly disappointing- though still good- second Whitechapel’s third outing sees a necessary adjustment to the format. Instead of copycat crimes, we have Edward Buchan (Steve Pemberton, as melodramatic as ever) installed as a civilian advisor on historical precedent that will shed some light on current cases. This allows the show to retain its superb signature look. Locales where dark foreboding old buildings mingle with modernity, flashes of odd happenings and historic documents and a police station that would look nearly the same if manned by Victorian costumed officers are the stock in trade of a show that pushes its gruesome credentials as far as the time slot will allow.

Thus we get three different stories this time, not directly linked to past crimes but informed by them. The first (you really feel that each should have macabre titles) sees the team investigate the murder of four people at a bespoke tailors where there is no evidence of a break in. As the investigation continues, the viewer is regaled with flashes of a person scuttling across a ceiling like a spider, a disturbing image that will stick with you long after you’ve finished watching. The trail leads to Marcus Salter the brother of the tailor who cannot stand the light and is given a creepy, devilish air by David Schneider. The climax sees him escape from a locked police cell, a cliff hanger of Sherlock like dexterity designed to keep you thinking for a week. The episode effortlessly shows how Whitechapel has found its groove again. It’s not just in the atmospherics or gore either. The characters have developed – and new officer Megan Riley played by Hannah Walters is a welcome, brassy addition to the all male team.


"Are you standing on a box, sir?"
"No, I am not standing on a box"
"You so are standing on a box"
The second episode slants a different way, slowly unpeeling the mystery with a mix of strange visuals. Writers Ben Court and Caroline Ip manage to weave together a satisfying conclusion that also overlaps into the personal lives of the main two characters without seeming too contrived.  The production is atmospheric and imaginative making us imagine all kinds of things. . A number of striking sequences pop up, the best of which is when we see someone looking in a mirror and the reflection of a face they cannot see looking back at them. The idea of someone sneaking about in your house’s walls is quite terrifying anyway but the way director John Strickland uses slow moving pov cameras and unsettling sound effects makes it all the more so.
In the midst of this visual smorgasbord there is always a danger of the actors getting lost but luckily this does not happen. There’s room for small nuggets of humour, notably when Chandler attends a quiz night in Buchan’s company. Also nicely underplayed are the simple scenes between Rupert Penry Jones’s fussy OCD Chandler and the much less inhibited Lizzie Pepper played by Christina Chong who is also a regular in the excellent Monroe and who will hopefully remain in this cast too. It hardly needs mentioning that Phil Davis puts in another good performance; Ray Miles is a mixture of touch cop and family man, elements that Davis judges perfectly.


"I wish I had a box"
Some may find the parallels with old cases a little too snug a fit but it helps create a series that is strikingly different to the norm. Even critics are starting to warm to the idea that even if you don’t  fall for the storyline, the show’s bold take on the genre will keep you entertained.  If you want a comparison try sitting through the recent Above Suspicion without falling asleep whereas Whitechapel knows what it has to do.

Words: John Connors

 

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