Victorian Modern

Episodes 3-6 of the third series of Whitechapel

It’s interesting what you can do with the insides of houses to make them unsettling. After the previous story gave us someone dangerous hiding in passages between walls, the second tale (comprising episodes 3 and 4 of the season) unveils a grand old house stacked high with old furniture, fittings and traps. Metal wire strings together this bizarre interior and if you don’t notice it you’ll not only get a nasty wound but tons of stuff will fall on you. When Chandler and Miles begin exploring this strange labyrinth, it reminds you again how cleverly Whitechapel balances the line between intrigue and absurdity.

Muse look a bit different these days don't they?

Adelina Grace for example is like some character from a twisted fairytale. She ekes out some sort of existence in the house while feeding foxes, poisoning cats and, she claims, waiting for her husband to come home from “hunting”. In fact, he’s already home albeit a mummified corpse buried under mounds of old newspapers. It’s a performance from Barbara Marten that just hints at the dignity the character once had.

Slightly disappointingly this house turns out to be something of a red herring. The team are chasing a fox – cue some vicious edits of foxes scavenging in the streets and noises galore- which have been seen depositing a human foot. Other bits of the same body turn up and when they try and follow the animal it leads them to the house.

It is a marvellously gruesome episode intercut with another fumbling romantic interest when Chandler meets Mina Norroy the investigating officer from where the foot was found who is nearly as obsessive as he is. She is played with precision by Camilla Power and there’s amusement in a scene where she and Chandler each arrange the minutiae of exactly the same food across the desk, Watch Phil Davis’ wry expressions at the couple’s awkward encounters too. There are also Buchan’s delightfully lurid descriptions of old murders to enjoy though as the series develops it can seem he is starting to seem more superfluous to the case and you almost feel as if we keep popping in to see him out of courtesy.  Can they sustain the approach for much longer? Or would the series still work if he were not there?

The answers to these questions are provided in the second part of the story in which Chandler is relying on Buchan’s archive to solve the case. You might wonder why they don’t just use the police Intranet or something but there is an ambience to that paper filled cellar that fits the series. The case proves to be less spooky and more disturbing as it progresses and the push and pull between Chandler and Norroy over Miles’ involvement is a well played secondary plot. After endless red herrings, the case is solved in what seems like a moment, but once again in style.

The police canteen was experimenting again.
The most adventurous of the trio of stories is the third which to some extent brings the Bogeyman to life. A visually arresting first episode is unsettling despite the fact that even Buchan dismisses the idea of the mythical character. In effect, we know it’s going to turn out to be someone in a mask but director Jon East picks up on the fear that the fiction rather than the fact implies and keeps our attention.

The team know that Calum Mantis a very dangerous murderer so we have a suspect for a vicious murder that resembles his previous crimes straight away. The episode though plays against these assumptions; some of the sequences are cleverly structured to mislead us none more so than the opening one in which a babysitter continually turns her back, walks into dark rooms and even opens the fridge door but no one appears even though we know they will. When the killer finally does appear it is so casual that you nearly leap from your seat. That this is interspersed with Buchan’s visit to psychiatrist Morgan Lamb (Lydia Leonard, excellent) to discuss coping with the knowledge of the victims he encounters makes it even more effective. 

Another excellent section sees Kent and Mansell exploring another old house; in this case it is one in which Mantis lived and which has been uninhabited since because it is supposed to be haunted. This is the season’s third strange house in what is becoming a signature motif and once again is a perfectly judged brew of diffused light, bizarre items and creaks in the distance.

It was slightly disconcerting for the reviewer to guess the outcome of the third key sequence that climaxes the episode but then I have watched three seasons of Criminal Minds! Nonetheless it is the single more striking moment in the season so far and most viewers will have been shocked by the idea.

The second episode is even better spreading suspicion as to who could be the culprit which at the same time starts to divide the team.  The style of the series allows for some very melodramatic yet gripping sequences. There’s one shot, so brief you might even miss it, where a policemen is seen guarding Morgan’s flat and a gloved hand sneaks into the frame. In other sequences we see the masked Bogeyman killer moving about at night and it could be any horror film.

It’s good too for the other members of the team to be brought more to the fore in this story. Each of their strengths is tested. Ensconced in the station for her own protection, Morgan acts like a virus, slowly picking apart the relationships between the team. Whether she is doing this deliberately or simply because this is an area she understands is part of the puzzle.

Thus, slowly Buchan’s reliance on fact is undercut by his worry about the real cost, the victims who have been merely statistics and facts to him before.  Mansell’s macho image is dented by his deep fear of the house, while Kent’s good nature is undermined by his being convinced Morgan is involved in the crimes. Best of all though is the way that Chandler and Miles’ friendship is tested and we see how they depend on each other even if neither is prepared to admit it.

Throw in some filmic references to Lon Chaney not to mention the Bogeyman legend and you have a script and production that is superb in every respect. The resolution is given a brilliant false dawn so that the story ultimately ends on a downbeat note too.  

Whitechapel is, you could say, Victorian Modern, fusing Victorian melodrama and contemporary detective stories in an often stunning way. It’s unsettling at times, borders on preposterous at others, yet is fascinatingly watchable and in this age of formula tv drama, a rare triumph of originality over convention.

Words: Ebenezer Glossop (well they love Victorian names in this show)

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