From Hell (2001) / Mystery-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, gore, sexuality, language, and drug content
Running Time: 95 min.
Cast: Johnny Depp, Heather Graham, Ian Holm, Robbie Coltrane, Ian Richardson, Jason Flemyng, Katrin Cartlidge, Terence Harvey, Sysan Lynch, Paul Rhys, Lesley Sharp, Estelle Skornik, Sophia Myles
Director: The Hughes Brothers
Screenplay: Terry Hayes, Rafael Yglesias (Based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore)
Impressively presented but emotionally sterile, From Hell is an interesting interpretation of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's deftly literate graphic novel of the same name, loosely wrapped around the real-life story of the unsolved "Jack the Ripper" murders of 1888. As with most Moore adaptations, what was definitely a different spin in the world of comic books comes across as more conventional in the realm of movies, as this is part whodunit and part sleazy thriller that can't quite make the leap to truly gripping Gothic horror status that the Hughes Brothers (Dead Presidents, Menace II Society), who normally specialize in modern urban crime dramas, appear to have been striving for.
Johnny Depp (Chocolat, Sleepy Hollow) employs a cockney accent playing Scotland Yard Inspector Frederick Abberline, heading the case to solve a series of grisly murders of Whitechapel, London street hookers. It's a tough time to be a prostitute for all sorts of reasons -- the seedy johns, the thuggish hoods angling for a cut of the money, and the nosy cops -- but all pale in significance to the truly gruesome dismemberments that have been done in secret then left at specific location, with the only real clue as to the culprit being the skill by which he has dissected his victims.
From Hell continues the tradition of "Jack the Ripper" thrillers by running more on conjecture as to how the murders play out in a fictional realm, and as several others have done, it involves a conspiracy on multiple levels and classes of society, rather than the more commonly plausible belief that the heinous murders were committed by a sole, crazed nobody. Lengthy scenes of political unrest and Freemason rituals foreshadow some of the revelations later, setting up the mystery to include much more than just the work of a lone psycho.
The story is rather straight forward, reeling out story points slowly in order to retain an air of mystery for the viewer. It's not particularly suspenseful, but the acting, costumes and stylish direction keep things moving along even when the storyline is murky. None of the characters feel like they have a sense of history, only existing in the here and now necessity of the plot. Depp's Abberline is mostly an opium-addicted oddball with little in the way of a discernible personality other than as the least corrupt authority figure in the film. He is imbued with a sort of "second sight" (a narrative shortcut meant to avoid the details of routine police work) that either helps or hinders his ability to solve cases by evidence, depending on your point of view.
Jack the Ripper is shown (though not his face), and his voice is also heard, but the identity is kept secret until the film nears its climax. Some clues are established early on to suggest that Jack the Ripper is someone with acute knowledge of human anatomy (due to his ability to remove organs easily), and that he is a member of the upper class (he feeds his victims grapes, which are an expensive delicacy very few could afford in that area in those days). Some minor red herrings abound, but none are built up enough to make the ending feel like any sort of twist.
From Hell falls under the category of film that is skillfully and artfully made, and not uninteresting by any stretch, yet it does lack an emotional anchor, which results in a muted climax and epilogue that packs not nearly the emotional punch it deserves. Like Jack the Ripper's final victim, this one's worked on with precision and skill, but the heart is removed, overcooked in a potboiler finale.
©2010 Vince Leo