From Hell

WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: In London’s Whitechapel, ladies of the night are being murdered and mutilated by a fiend known as the Ripper. It falls to brilliantly intuitive but cripplingly addicted police inspector Fred Abberline to solve the mystery of who is killing, and more importantly why.

Johnny Depp is Fred Abberline, the inspector whose days are spent investigating crime in late Victorian Whitechapel and nights spent smoking opium and drinking laudanum-laced absinthe, ruining his health but providing him with vivid visions about the crimes. Abberline is dragged from his den by sidekick Sgt Godley (Robbie Coltrane) to the scene of a ghastly murder of a prostitute, one of a group of six women not only threatened with extortion by the violent representatives of the Nichols Gang, but endangered by one of their number Anne’s fruitful association with a well-connected man called Albert.

The murders pile up and their clinical nature, plus Anne’s confinement in an asylum by Special Branch thug Ben Kidney (Terence Harvey), lead Abberline away from suspecting simple gang motives towards higher powers. His investigations, aided by Royal Surgeon Sir William Gull (Ian Holm), lead him to some startling discoveries about the Royal Family and into direct conflict with his superior, Sir Charles Warren (Ian Richardson). Meanwhile, as the prostitutes continue to work, in fear of their lives, Abberline finds himself drawn to the flame-haired Mary Kelly (Heather Graham) and his mission becomes complicated as he attempts to protect her, whilst discovering the Ripper’s identity and the secret that powerful men are willing to kill to keep quiet.

The plot of From Hell will be familiar murder-mystery fare to anyone who has seen a Miss Marple or even Murder, she wrote, though the film takes its atmospheric cues from Conan Doyle. The Hughes Brothers embrace just about every theory about the Ripper that has ever existed, throwing in an entire bucket of Victorian stereotypes too: there’s anti-Semitism, anti-Irish sentiment, strict class segregation; the Elephant Man makes a brief appearance, for no particular reason, and Victoria herself turns up in full ‘Not Amused’ mode. Also, without giving too much of the plot away, the Masons (the perfect shadowy organisation at any time) have a big hand in affairs.

All of these period details are presumably designed to disrupt our familiarity with the plot, but the clichés are so startling that when they turn up, they are unmistakeable: the big cover-up that goes all the way to the top, for example, and the intuitive inspector who gets thrown off the case. Plus, of course, Abberline’s drug problem not only recalls hard-bitten cops like Popeye Doyle in The French Connection; the scenes of Depp ‘Chasing the Dragon’ are so reminiscent of Once Upon A Time In America that I can only assume the framing of the shot is some sort of homage to Leone (without, thankfully, the interminable phone ringing).

I suppose it would be considered picky to complain that a film based on a graphic novel (by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell) is too graphic, and much less one dealing with the Jack the Ripper legend. That the Ripper should be killing prostitutes is no surprise, but for the killer to surgically remove their lady parts as well as their internal organs verges on the grotesque. That may be the desired effect, but for me it’s taking nastiness a little too far. To an extent this is a matter of taste, but it’s also an example of what works in a comic book not transferring successfully to film.

This is also true of Mary Kelly and her impossibly red hair. Either the wig is not right for Heather Graham, or Graham is not right for the wig. There are those who think that Graham is miscast, but apart from some odd vowel sounds (people attempting Cockney always say ‘froight,’ for some reason) she is okay, and I can’t imagine who might have done the job much more effectively – Mary has to look fairly fresh-faced and clean to be sympathetic as a love interest, so is unlikely to look that convincing as a prostitute. As for the rest of the group, their portrayal may well be accurate but the film employs a hackneyed (forgive the pun, but I rather like it) approach as they sell themselves around Whitechapel, anyone’s for a drink or a small bunch of grapes; and their silly refusal to obey their own rules and stick together (via various contrivances such as arguments over Liz’s lesbianism) feels like standard horror procedure for lining up victims.

From Hell is not total shlock, the acting in general being of a high standard (Depp low-key but effective) and high production values evident throughout. There is a definite – if unevenly applied – visual flamboyance at work, the blood-red London skies looking particularly menacing. The film does not, however, ever look as though it’s located on anything other than a set; and though much attention has been paid to the look of the film, much less imagination has been exerted on the characters or storyline.

If anything, it should have been more inventive – supernatural powers (Depp’s ‘Intuitions’ for example, or Holm’s eyes turning black) are hinted at but never fully developed. As it is, the film is a curiously but self-assuredly overwrought piece which never quite finds out which out of thriller, horror, fantasy or period drama it wants to be most; still, it’s worth a watch, as long as you have the stomach for it.

NOTES: Of particular interest to British viewers will be actresses well known for their television work, including Stacey from Gavin and Stacey and, briefly, Nicole from the old Renault ads.

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