From Hell

On the surface, “From Hell” may seem like a radical departure for filmmaking twin brothers Albert and Allen Hughes. Upon closer inspection, this marriage of gothic horror and the urban sensibilities of the directors of “Menace II Society” makes perfect sense.

Even though “From Hell,” based on the graphic novel about Jack the Ripper by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, takes place in 1888 London, the Hughes brothers are on familiar turf. Set in the squalid Whitechapel slums, the film is a shocking example of just how little things have changed over the last 100 years.

The violent themes flowing through “From Hell” like a crimson river are reminders that human suffering and degradation are time honored traditions among the privileged and the poor. The Hughes brothers find relevance in the screenplay by Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias, an atmospheric detective story told from the gutter instead of the ivory towers of Scotland Yard.

“From Hell” works brilliantly because the filmmakers are willing to get down and dirty, a necessity considering the subject matter. Indeed, “From Hell” is filled with horrific images, including the carnage left by the Ripper. Yet you know from the very beginning that “From Hell” is more than a horror film.

There’s great irony in the story. With a few minor changes the film could be set in East Los Angeles. I suspect this is what attracted the Hughes brothers to the material.

When Jack the Ripper kills the first of five hookers, no one really cares. Social class indifference runs rampant in “From Hell.” When the upper class learn that there is a serial killer amongst them, they could care less as long as he preys on the lower class.

Fighting this indifference is Police Sergeant Peter Godley (Robbie Coltrane), who calls in noted police investigator Fred Abberline (Johnny Depp) to help solve the case. Godley suspects a local gang, but Abberline knows better.

When he’s not fighting his own internal demons, Abberline parlays his psychic abilities into an important tool to track down the Ripper, and identify his potential list of victims.

That leads Abberline to hooker with a heart of gold Mary Kelly (Heather Graham), an Irish lass doing what ever it takes to fill her stomach and put a roof over her head. You can’t blame Mary for being suspicious. Extremely rough around the edges, Abberline doesn’t look like a savior.

When we first meet Abberline, he’s self-medicating his tortured spirit inside an opium den. While he spends his waking hours nursing the heartbreak of losing his wife and child, Abberline’s dreams are filled with psychic visions that turn into reality. Getting the authorities to believe him is one thing, convincing them that the ritualistic murders are the work of someone from the upper class is all but impossible.

In the graphic novel, the identity of Jack the Ripper is firmly established from the beginning. In the film, the writers keep us guessing until the end. Smart move. Monsters are always more frightening in the dark. By keeping us in the dark, we get to share the journey of the characters. Those willing to make the journey will appreciate the trip.

Everything about “From Hell” is striking and memorable. Production designer Martin Childs vividly recreates the Whitechapel slums. We feel like we’ve been transported back in time. The immense set allows director of photography Peter Deming to pull back the camera without hesitation. This is important because we need to feel that the Ripper could be hiding around any dark corner.

Johnny Depp is at his best playing tortured souls, and Abberline lives and breathes through Depp’s controlled performance. Abberline is an extension of Depp’s character in “Sleepy Hollow,” men who use their unusual tools to solve crimes. Depp invests much more in Abberline, finding and exposing every raw nerve of the character.

Abberline is so caught up in his own loss that when he attempts to protect Mary Kelly from the Ripper, we’re not sure if it’s out of duty, affection, or because he can’t bear any more darkness in his life.

There’s equal conflict in Graham’s Kelly, who knows from experience not to place her faith or trust in anyone, least of all a police investigator. While Graham is far too pretty and clean to be a Whitechapel hooker, her performance is appropriately gritty. She helps us understand why Kelly does what she does, even when it means being reduced to the lowest common denominator on the human scale.

Using the drawings from the graphic novel as their storyboard, Albert and Allen Hughes create a film filled with sharp contrasts. Shadows cut through every frame with the precision of a scalpel. Most of the scenes have a dreamlike quality to them. This helps soften the impact of the darker moments.

“From Hell” is solid filmmaking. It combines strong acting, stylish direction, powerful writing and exquisite production design to create a world that’s impossible to escape from once you enter.


Hughes Brothers take stab at Jack the Ripper legend


Johnny Depp, Heather Graham, Ian Holm, Jason Flemyng, Robbie Coltrane. Directed by Albert and Allen Hughes. Rated R. 123 Minutes


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