From Hell
directed by Albert & Allen Hughes
(20th Century Fox, 2001)

Something Alan Moore fans should know up front: Neither Alan Moore nor Eddie Campbell were involved in the film adaptation of Moore's 1999 graphic novel From Hell. Great portions of the graphic novel are missing -- but don't let that dissuade you from watching a very good movie.

The Hughes brothers, of Dead Presidents and Menace 2 Society fame, do admit, in the production notes section of the two-disc DVD, that adapting the entire novel was impossible. It's entirely too layered and would have taken far longer than the two hours they devoted to fleshing out Moore's interesting take on the murders by Jack the Ripper.

Moore essentially took every known fact in the case and tied them all together into one large tapestry of events. Movies demand straightforward thrills, happy endings and romances.

The center of the story is a fictional romance between Mary Kelly (Heather Graham) and Inspector Abberline (a spaced-out Johnny Depp), the lead investigator assigned to the case of murdered prostitutes in London's East End in the fall of 1888. The Ripper, the center character in the novel, does not have as large a role in this treatment; the story is mostly told from Abberline's point of view.

Abberline is addicted to opium and absinthe, the typical Edwardian narcotic cocktail used by Oscar Wilde and other famous figures of the times to quiet their demons and summon their Muses. But in Abberline's case, the deadly poison releases psychic visions about the murders. (Apparently the infamous clairvoyant R.J. Lees, who attempted to help the police locate the killer, has been rolled into one got-it-all character along with Abberline.)

It's hard to make a movie with an essentially unsolved murder look good, so Moore's theory about the Ripper murder actually presents a tantalizing conclusion in Hollywood terms. That justifies stripping it of some, but not quite all, of the multilayered historical fact in which the book is so richly invested.

Albert and Allen Hughes considered it a challenge to direct a movie that wasn't about the "hood," welcoming a chance to show what they can do. Judging by the accurate and breathtaking amount of detail presented, a lot of sweat -- not to mention money by the bucket -- went into the making of this film. As they say in the notes, the hood of today is not very much different than the East End in Victorian days. Their street sensibilities are well played out in the foggy streets of the most poverty stricken area of London, where prostitution, alcohol and drug abuse, not to mention murder, are commonplace. The visual are stunning, and they do an excellent job of getting into the mind of the killer, a la Silence of the Lambs. They also don't stint on gore. Be warned: this movie contains scenes that even fans of that movie's gruesome special effects might find hard to swallow.

Depp's strung-out Abberline, who is literally going mad during his search for the killer, is effective most of the time. He could have slid on the surface of the movie, slack-jawed and listless, but he manages to invest his character with just enough emotion to make Abberline's induced comas understandable.

Robbie Coltrane as Sgt. Peter Godley genuinely seems to care about Abberline, believing wholeheartedly in his unusual but reliable visions, enough to act as Abberline's man Friday when dealing with (and bellowing at) the officers under their command. Yet he wisely remains in the background; Coltrane can steal the scene but chooses to rely on his wry wit to get his character across.

Ian Holm as Sir William Gull is his usual wonderful self, a bizarre mixture of genteel country doctor and sinister aristocrat, member of a secret society of Freemasons whose actions may be part of a conspiracy of silence that leads to the highest power in Britain.

Heather Graham does a nice turn as Mary Kelly, the red-haired Irish prostitute who steals Abberline's heart as he races to stop the Ripper before his lover becomes the final victim. She gives the accent her very best try and doesn't come off half bad. She appears to be too well-scrubbed for role, though, and not quite downtrodden enough in a time when women slept in the streets and went to workhouses in large horse-drawn cages. She means well but stands painfully apart from the excellent British ensemble.

The suspense is tight, with suspects appearing in all corners of society, high and low. It's intricate and tricky, but it works. The attention to historical detail, combined with a theory that doesn't seem at all implausible when laid out end to end, makes for a compelling story. The density of the story is highlighted by filming that borders on artwork.

It would have been easy to go for a simple thriller, but the Hughes brothers do so much more: they show what the Ripper actually meant when he said he was the man who ushered in the 20th century. Yes, serial killers had existed, but not like this fellow, who is consumed by the alienation so prevalent in the industrial age, an alienation that cries out for appeasement. He is a man totally cut off from society by raging desires that twist him apart. His fate mirrors that of the prostitutes he kills, themselves cut off from a society that doesn't know what to do with unmarried, poor women. He single-handedly inaugurated the age of the sex crime, and the Victorians knew that this time, something new and strange was at work. Previously, crimes were caused by the usual drunkenness and "economic necessity" of the poor. But the Ripper murders, with their nightmarish mutilations, went beyond normal comprehension. It was as if the killer wanted to shock and insult the whole community.

The actions of the Ripper are the actions of a man at war with society itself, and that is what the Hughes brothers take from Moore's book. Through MTV-like flashes and lots of quicksilver touches borrowed from Seven, they plunge into the cobblestone streets and lamp-lit alleyways of the East End, showing the murder and visionary sequences in dreamy flashes supported by a $30 million, painstakingly rebuilt set that is accurate right down to the shivering madmen living in the street and homeless children sleeping in window wells. You are kept guessing until the end, and the moment of revelation being downright chilling. Yet the movie never exploits the violence, as hard to take as some of it may be. All of the actresses playing the prostitutes convey an almost palpable desperation, trying to stick together but unable to save themselves.

The special features section of the DVD gives viewers a quick but highly educational tour of Ripper mythology. It finishes off with the usual cast interviews and a tour of the meticulously crafted set, which was built in Prague. It's worth viewing for the attention to detail, if you're into the history of Jack the Ripper.

At the end of the day, the movie an enjoyable, excellent and respectful turn on an age-old story, as well as being a sinister foreshadowing of the modern age. It may be too long and too gory for some viewers, however.

[ by Mary Harvey ]
Rambles: 27 July 2002

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