The Ripper (1997)


There are a handful of notorious crimes that remain solved from the Victorian era. The history of the fiend who called himself "Jack the Ripper" and terrorized the Whitechapel district for several months in 1888 is one such gruesome case. To this date, historians still puzzle over the identity of the murderer of prostitutes in the city streets. The Ripper, a television event, has no basis in historical fact apart from a few cryptic clues and the long-held (but ultimately ruled out) suspicion that the royal family was involved, but does provide an entertaining two hours.


Social-climber Inspector Jim Hansen (Patrick Bergin) has been saddled with an unfortunate series of events revolving around a set of gruesome killings in the poor district of London. The crime, which sparks fascination among the upper classes and terror among the women of the area, is one of a purposeful slaughtering: a prostitute has been found dismembered, her intestines tied around her slit throat. The case has been brought to the interest of his supervisor, Sir Charles Warren (Michael York), who brings the intrepid young man into the highest circles. Among the legion of newfound acquaintances is Prince Albert Victor Edward (Samuel West), the eccentric future heir to the throne. Amidst the matchmaking of Sir Charles' wife, in her attempt to interest Hansen in her protge, Evelyn (Essie Davis), the inspector is more drawn to a street walker.


Former prostitute and mill worker, Florrie (Gabrielle Anwar) inadvertently disturbs the Ripper in his latest dismemberment. In the process, she gains a clear glimpse of his face. Wary of the police and dually suspicious of all men, she rejects her important role as a key witness. Only when Hansen reminds her that any of her friends might be next does she agree to assist him in finding the murderer. Throughout the film, the audience has known the identity of the Ripper. We observe the seduction of his victims, and the ending result. Most audiences will be familiar with the gory details of the crimes, but be surprised with the highly controversial stance that this fictionalized account of historical events takes. I wasn't wholly pleased with the conclusions that were drawn, and the implications that were made. They are based on street gossip of the era rather than fact, and historians and unwary viewers should not take them lightly.


That being said, there is something alluring about the production, notwithstanding its excellent performances. Patrick Bergin is very likable as the local inspector striving for acknowledgement in an increasingly more biased society, but the real gem here is Samuel West. Most of the time, he is drawn to roles with varying degrees of complexity, but here is allowed to show off his truly malicious side. The script does rely on some clichs, such as pairing up Florrie and Hansen in a romantic relationship. They barely know one another, so the resulting love affair is hardly convincing. There are a lot of glimpses into social perspectives of the times, things that the Victorians were known for but are highly ashamed of now. Much emphasis is placed on the degradation of prostitution, and its recurring increase of various diseases among the populace. In an attempt to vilify moral codes of the times, Sir Charles has a revolting speech about "whores" being less than human, justifying his beliefs through the lack of value they place upon themselves.


Language is a minor issues, but there are repeat slang terms (things like "p***off," "whore," and "bleeding"), along with mild profanities and several abuses of God's name. (A policeman exclaims "Mother of Christ!") On the whole there isn't much in the way of graphic violence, but the aftermath is highly disturbing. It is implied, in one of the more horrific things I have seen, that the Ripper is thrown from his horse. He calmly takes the beast into the barn and rubs him down with oil... before flipping a match into the stall. We don't see the animal burn to death but hear his frenzied whinnying. Numerous women are shown in pools of blood. The first has her skirt pulled almost all the way up; a bloody ruin disguises her private parts. We briefly see internal organs tied around her neck, and learn that the mess included her vagina. Believing she's going to give a man sexual pleasure, a prostitute pulls up her skirt and leans over a barrel. The audience catches a few glimpses of her partial bare butt before and after she is strangled from behind. One of the local girls attempts to convince Florrie to go back into the business. Gentlemen make mildly suggestive remarks to their ladies.


One thing that disappointed me was Hansen's response when Florrie accused him of being like all men and only wanting one thing. She then offered herself to him -- and he accepted. It wasn't the graphic love scene that followed that concerned me as much as the implication that he genuinely loved her. Hansen could have respected her enough to convince her that he didn't just want to protect and love her for carnal pleasures. The film inadvertently shoots itself in the foot by making him appear an opportunist. In the context of the dialogue preceding the event, Florrie would have felt like the "whore" that she accused him of believing she was. That dampened the experience for me, since it goes back to the underlining chauvinistic viewpoint of the times that women are only sexual objects. The film is an interesting one, but offensive on some levels, and sorrowful on others.  

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