"From Hell," the latest from the Hughes Brothers ("Menace II Society"),
is a sumptuous adaptation of the acclaimed graphic novel by Alan Moore
and Eddie Campbell. Moore and Campbell (along with script writers Terry
Hayes and Rafael Yglesais) take us back to the Whitechapel district of
London in 1888, where elegance and coarseness co-reside and the
well-to-do scurry along, casting furtive glances at the ungodly poor
people working the cobblestone streets. Someone else is also working the
streets. Jack the Ripper is in the middle of his legendary killing
spree, luring neighborhood prostitutes with grapes, a rare and precious
commodity, then committing surgical atrocities on their bodies.
The man in charge of the case is Scotland Yard Inspector Abberline
(Johnny Depp), an opium addled man who derives at least some of his
insights from drug visions. He and the disapproving, but loyal Sgt.
Godley (Robbie Coltrane) serve as an ersatz Sherlock Holmes and Dr.
Watson, trying to unravel the mystifying case. Along the way, Abberline
falls in love with working girl Mary Kelly (Heather Graham), unknowingly
putting her in grave danger.
The case leads Abberline and Godley to some imposing areas, including
the royal family and the secretive Order of Freemasons. Abberline comes
up with a specific name and a detailed motive, but some very powerful
individuals want to make sure that the name and motive will never reach
The Hughes brothers, with a strong assist from cinematographer Peter
Deming, have crafted a London that is grim and visually arresting. Shots
of the city skyline are particularly impressive. The atmosphere is
right, the mystery is strong and the threat is most certainly
compelling. But all too often, I found myself simply observing the film
rather than being immersed in it.
Part of the reason may be the Hughes' reverence for their source
material. They seem so focused on capturing the look of the graphic
novel that they give short shrift to other elements of the production.
Johnny Depp plays an insular type that is fascinating to study, but
difficult to relate to. As for the others working to solve the case, or
just stay alive, each has built a substantial protective wall around
So despite its surrealistic motif, "From Hell" plays as primarily an
academic exercise, engaging the eyes, ears and intellect, but not the
heart. Given the graphic displays of gore and the monumentally perverse
nature of Jack the Ripper, that isn't necessarily a negative. In this
place, with these people, watching them clinically rather than becoming
empathic may be the preferable thing to do.
Copyright © 2001 Edward Johnson-Ott