Reviewed by GREG KING
Directors: Allen and Albert Hughes
Stars: Johnny Depp, Ian Holm, Ian Richardson, Heather Graham, Jason Flemyng, Robbie Coltrane.
The story of notorious 19th century serial killer Jack the Ripper has been told numerous times before (in films like Murder By Decree, etc), even though his identity has never been officially revealed.
Based on a graphic novel written by Alan Moore, From Hell delivers its own credible theory on why his identity has never been exposed, while retaining much of the mystery surrounding his brief but bloody reign of terror. The film interweaves a fictitious framework around most of the familiar or popular theories about Jack the Ripper, including the rumoured links to Freemasonry and the Royal Family anxious to cover up a scandal that could bring down the monarchy. Grim and moody, the script from Australian Terry Hayes (Mad Max 2, etc) and Rafael Yglesias (Fearless, etc) tries to bring some fresh perspectives to this familiar tale and, for the most part, succeeds.
Johnny Depp lends a contemporary flavour to the film through his role as Fred Abberline, a gifted Scotland Yard detective given to intuitive guesses about crimes, who reads the forensic evidence, and who seems to be a 19th century equivalent of the profilers beloved of modern fiction. Abberline seems to be a distant cousin of Ichabod Crane (the character played by Depp in Sleepy Hollow), although he has a darker edge, as he is also addicted to opium and prone to disturbing clairvoyant visions about the vicious murders. Abberline enlists the help of Sir William Gull (Ian Holm), the royal physician, to help understand the ritualistic nature of the mutilations and the slayings. He even defies his superiors to persist with the investigation when he comes close to exposing potentially embarrassing links to London’s elite.
For twin film making brothers Allen and Albert, who work under the collective identity of the Hughes brothers (better known for films like Menace II Society, Dead Presidents, etc), From Hell marks something of a departure from their usual concerns. Here they bring a grim sense of foreboding and surprising tension to the material, with ominous red skies and gloomy lighting. Prague doubles for 19th century London, but the film captures the suitably gloomy slums and dirty streets of the impoverished Whitechapel district, home of sleazy pubs and prostitutes, and the scene of the Ripper’s bloody murders. The pair bring some nice visual flourishes to the material. The film is gory without being gratuitous or overly graphic, and the Hughes brothers exercise some restraint in depicting the mutilations inflicted on the victims.
Initially the casting of two American actors in the central roles is a little troubling, but Depp particularly acquits himself well, delivering his usual strong almost introspective and complex performance. Heather Graham plays prostitute Mary Kelly, but she is conspicuously well groomed, healthy and clean, and somehow presents a grating contrast to the rest of her colleagues. The ensemble cast is rounded out by a number of British veterans including Holm, Jason Flemyng, Robbie Coltrane, and Murder Room’s Ian Richardson, typically gruff, sardonic and officious as the police commissioner.
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