2001, R, 123 min. Directed by Albert Hughes, Allen Hughes. Starring Ian Richardson, Jason Flemyng, Byron Fear, Katrin Cartlidge, Joanna Page, Paul Rhys, Robbie Coltrane, Ian Holm, Heather Graham, Johnny Depp.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 19, 2001
If you're like me you've been waiting for the definitive film version of Jack the Ripper's blade-happy hijinks at least since the fall of 1888, or thereabouts. Despite the terrific source material for From Hell -- it's based on Alan Moore's landmark graphic novel from a few years back; if you haven't read it, I urge you to run out and pick up a copy -- the wait, I'm pained to say, goes on. As directed by the Hughes Brothers (Menace II Society, American Pimp), the film, which places Depp's opium-addled Scotland Yard Inspector Abberline in the midst of the Ripper's hellish doings in the Whitechapel district, with fallen woman Heather Graham by his side, is a thing of beauty to behold, all dark shadows and much innovative camerawork that ratchets up the suspense by placing us in the mindset of the killer. Sadly, however, there's little of the wealth of story that made Moore's comic so compulsively readable. Abberline, who is to the Victorian era what Millennium's Frank Black was to the Fox network -- that is, he has a psychic connection to the killer at hand -- is a cadaverous underworld denizen in his own right. The way Depp plays him you're never sure who is the bigger threat, Abberline or Red Jack, and that moral relativity adds layers to the film that are sorely lacking elsewhere. The film's other big idea, that the Ripper may have been connected very closely indeed to the Royal Family, isn't new at all, but adds a frisson of historical grue to the mix nonetheless. What irks me most about From Hell, however, is the near-complete absence of backstory we're offered. As the film opens, we see Abberline reclining in an opium den, his oily, languid face the very hallmark of debauch. Little other information is given -- he's suffered the loss of his wife, and he's on the outs with the Yard -- and so if you're not familiar with the labyrinthine twists of the graphic novel, you're going to wonder -- often -- who these people are and why on earth you should care about them, apart from the fact that they look so very spiffy in their artfully soiled Victorian get-ups. Holm, as a central figure, a physician to be specific, is excellent, as is Depp. Graham, on the other hand, comes up wanting. She's the cleanest Whitechapel whore you've ever seen, and her acting range falls somewhat short of the challenges presented by the script. As I said, From Hell is a visual tour-de-force; it's just that there's not much else to sink your teeth into once the pretty colors fade from view.