Classic Woman-centric Movie Review: Murder by Decree

So Netflix screwed up again and didn’t send me The Lodger (grumble, grumble, grumble), but I have another Ripperology-related film to talk about. What is it? Murder by Decree, made in 1979 and directed by Bob Clark and starring Christopher Plummer, James Mason, Genevieve Bujold, Susan Clark (the mom in Webster), and Donald Sutherland, along with a bunch of other actors you’d know.

The film commences in late September of 1888, after the night of the “double event,” and Sherlock Holmes (Plummer) and Dr. Watson (Mason) are called upon by the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee to investigate the murders of Jack the Ripper. Holmes and Watson show up and the Eddowes murder scene, which is being investigated by Inspector Lestrade, who, of course, is always willing to share information with Holmes. Inspector Foxboro welcomes Holmes’s help on the case, while Sir Charles Warren, the commissioner of Scotland Yard, is determined to do what he can to keep Holmes from meddling. Still, Holmes and Watson plunge onward, consulting medium R. J. Lees (Sutherland) for assistance. They finally track down prostitute Mary Jane Kelly (Clark), who is in fear for her life. It is from her that that learn of the Duke of Clarence’s secret marriage to a young Catholic woman (Bujold) and of the measures the royal family has taken to keep the whole thing from becoming public, a theory known as the Royal Conspiracy, which has been soundly debunked.

Murder by Decree poster.
Murder by Decree movie poster. Image via Wikipedia.

I’ve always like this film better than From Hell because it’s not so gory and, as in any Sherlock Holmes story, it is very neatly plotted and provides a good denouement and a certain sense of resolution for the victims. Holmes takes on the Ripper murders because the killer is escalating and because the police can’t seem to find them on their own. At the same time, he also ends up fighting for those without voices and seeking justice for those whose lives the conspirators have deemed worthless. Plummer’s Holmes is much more compassionate than other actors have more recently portrayed him, and this was a side of him seen in some of the Doyle works. Mason’s Watson is endearing and not the bumbling fool as portrayed by Nigel Bruce, either. He also has a very strong moral compass and is very intelligent and is shown as a partner in Holmes’s investigations. These are people who care about doing the right thing when everyone else isn’t, and sometimes when the world is a frightening place, I watch this movie and things do seem like they will, eventually, be okay.

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