Our rating: 3 out of 5
reviewed by Charity Bishop
The greatest unsolved serial murder of all time is that of Jack the Ripper, a notorious murderer who during the autumn months of 1888, terrorized London's Whitechapel district with a handful of murders so vicious that even today they are considered horrific. There have been numerous films made about the killer, with various conclusions, but this is considered one of the better adaptations among Ripper enthusiasts for its careful attention to detail. Not everything is precise, but it's near enough to make a convincing case.
When a prostitute is found dismembered in an alley in Whitechapel, rather than allowing local police authorities to contend with it, the Police Commissioner involves Scotland Yard, who puts their best man on the case. Inspector Fred Abberline (Michael Caine) is well known for closing his cases but also has a drinking problem, something that worries his superiors and so they assign him to work with Sgt. George Godley (Lewis Collins), a young man of magnificent ambition and a keen mind. Determined to run circles around the police and make a name for himself in the press is a local newspaper man with a penchant for telling lies, and also a well-known psychic, Robert Lees (Ken Bones), who claims to have seen a vision of the murderer. He describes him as "the man with two faces," and with the assistance of a couple of well meaning press people, including the beautiful artist Emma Prentiss (Jane Seymour), becomes convinced that the police should consider one man in particular a suspect: Richard Mansfield (Armand Assante), a well-known American actor who has recently stunned London audiences with his terrifying depiction of the title character in Robert Lewis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.
More vicious murders are committed and the people of Whitechapel are stirred into a panic, causing them to establish a potential uprising at the hand of a well-known insurgent, but in the meantime, Inspector Abberline and Sgt. Godley are disconcerted with their findings -- namely, that it is possible that the future King of England may be involved. With their superiors breathing down their neck in order to close the case and rule out Prince Albert, matters are only complicated further by the suspicious actions of Mansfield, Abberline's romantic attachment to Emma, and the Ripper sending a gruesome present to the local newspaper. The result is a long (it clock in at just over three hours) but enthralling miniseries that kept audiences captivated when it originally aired on television, intending to mark the 100th anniversary of the Ripper murders. The actual case remains publicly unsolved, but rampant speculation among Ripper experts is that either the solution was covered up by the royal family, or was sealed by the police. There is also suspicion that well known criminal expert Dr. Josef Bell (famous for having been the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's great detective Sherlock Holmes) solved the case. Whichever guess is the right one is irrelevant, because this film, like many others before and after it, is allowed to draw its own conclusions.
I will say that it is a solution I have seen before, and that seems to be most often reached in cinema, but the motive was different from the rest, and I appreciated a unique take on what drove the crimes, as well as the identity of the second participant. One interesting thing about the film is that three conclusions were filmed and then the director chose the final one in secret, hoping to throw the cast off of his true suspicions. While the material is somewhat dated, it doesn't really show that much -- consideration was paid to the costuming and the cast and none of them seem shoddy by today's standards. If anything, it is more discreet than many of the productions, with grisly details read aloud but almost never shown (the audience does get a blink-and-you-will-miss-it far off glimpse into a bloodstained room). The acting is quite good but I felt it was a little overlong and the character of Emma Prentiss in particular was not really needed in order to truly further the story. (And I say that with the greatest respect, because I never turn down an opportunity to see the beautiful Jane Seymour flounce around in Victorian gowns.) Her love story with Abberline is not fleshed out enough to maintain interest and she pretty much vanishes for most of the film, only appearing now and again for a bit of color.
My favorite character immediately became Godley, who was quite sweet and very purposeful, but the rest of the cast did very well, including Assante in the role of an arrogant and sinister actor. There is some content concerns to forewarn families about -- naturally, a great deal of conversation revolves around the removal of hearts and other internal organs from the slain prostitutes. The detectives are surprised that no sexual assault was involved. Abberline opens a package from the Ripper and finds a liver inside; he hands it to Godley, who throws the box away and the bloody tissue falls out onto the floor. Later, a doctor is seen examining it under a lens. Blood sprays onto a carriage window while the occupant screams. Facial reactions reveal the horrors of a crime scene. Several times we see prostitutes about to be attacked but not the actual act itself. There's no sexual content, but the way Abberline interacts with Emma implies they once had (or have) an intimate physical relationship. She avoids confessing to him later that she spent the night with Mansfield. (All of which, I might add, seemed very out of period and non-authentic for a woman of her Victorian upbringing.) The police barge into a brothel and find two young prostitutes half-dressed. We see part of a woman's bare chest as she draws a dressing gown around herself in a later scene. Mansfield confesses to being a womanizer with a penchant for prostitutes. Language consists of a half dozen uses of the term "b*stard," and numerous uses of "whore."
Lees is a psychic and often experiences visions. It is referenced several times that he is the personal fortune teller of Queen Victoria, and that he has held séances. Because this miniseries is not readily available in the States, I had to hunt a long time for it. For someone as intrigued with the different possibilities involved in the Ripper murders, it was an interesting way to spend an evening. It is complicated and theatrical enough that I would not recommend it for families with younger children (it caused quite a few nightmares in its day), but for anyone fascinated with the time period or the murders, it will certainly give you something to think about.