He may not have
been the first serial killer, nor the most prolific, but Jack The Ripper
may be the killer with the greatest hold on the popular imagination.
All the more fun to imagine, in fact, because no one really knows who
research, writer Alan Moore teamed up with artist Eddie Campbell to
throw their fictionalized theory into the ring in a massive graphic
novel called From Hell. Complex as a $500 bottle of wine, From
Hell required no fewer than thirty pages (triple-columned) of footnotes
and annotations. Despite its depth, Hollywood came calling.
In the hands of
the Hughes Brothers (Albert and Allen), From Hell remains somewhat
complex, though typical Hollywood trappings water it down. The resulting
film may be more of a casual table wine, but it sure is fun to drink.
Johnny Depp stars
as Inspector Fred Abberline, a detective prone to both psychic visions
and a variety of mind-altering substances. (Sadly, his drinking absinthe
does not conjure up Kylie Minogue.) For some reason, his partner Godley
(Robbie Coltrane) takes Abberline's visions at face value, the only
person in Scotland Yard who does. The two have been called in to solve
a prostitute's murder in the East End. By accent and allusion, it becomes
clear that Abberline knows those streets too well for his own liking.
As to who is committing
these murders, and why, the Hughes Brothers do a good job of hiding
their clues in plain sight. The graphic novel lets the reader in on
it immediately; wisely, the film makes it a mystery for the sharp viewer
to solve with Abberline. We do know it has something to do with high
society, but the true motive takes awhile to glean. Loaded with red
herrings (historical but likely fictionalized) and obscure slices of
1888 London life, something is always happening onscreen to cleverly
(but fairly) misdirect the audience.
All that can be
said for sure is that the killer has focused on a specific group of
prostitutes, led by Mary Kelly (Heather Graham, with a slightly distracting
red dye-job). Sometimes known as Marie, sometimes as Jeanette, Mary
has a somewhat tarnished heart of gold. Though all the "unfortunate
women" do know something dangerous, they themselves do not know what
it is. And despite Abberline's request that they stay off the streets,
the reality of their lives prevents them from taking the very actions
that would save them.
and Mary meet, things do wallow a bit in Hollywood treacle. Their romance
is chaste, but feels a little forced by genre habit. It does, however,
end with surprising poignancy, once the directors connect dots left
in place by the graphic novel.
The scope of the
source material requires a broad canvas. To their credit, the Hughes
Brothers have not flinched away from that. Though some people and places
appear without a sense of why they might be important ("hey look! It's
that freaky Elephant Man!"), it is clear these murders did not happen
in a vacuum.
With no little
sad irony in 2001, the Hughes show us casually ugly attitudes of class
and race; a couple of scenes could substitute the word "Muslim" for
"Jew" and easily be timely. In quick seemingly throwaway strokes, the
directors present us with the popular theories of the day. You have
to be quick to take it all in, or, more insidiously, you have to see
it more than once.
Helping the Hughes
is a rich cast of British character actors. Ian Richardson stands out
as Sir Charles Warren, Abberline's superior on the case. He plays his
character's ineffectiveness in such a way that you never really know
if it's an act or not.
Making his first
big foray outside of a Guy Ritchie film, Jason Flemyng impresses as
Netley, the "chauffer" for Jack The Ripper, torn between a sense of
duty and a sense of damnation. And though too much goes on for the prostitutes
to be deeply fleshed-out characters, each actress still manages to be
memorable. The weakest may be the biggest star, Graham, with an unsteady
accent but an unwavering stare. It's a stretch for her that her talent
cannot yet reach.
The film belongs,
however, to the antagonists of Depp and the actor playing Jack The Ripper.
If Depp has ever given an uninteresting performance, it has never been
filmed. Always magnetic, he does a convincing job as a man trying desperately
to run from demons even as he surely tracks one down. Without compromising
the mystery, let it be said that when Jack's identity is revealed, the
actor playing him rises to an impressively terrible majesty.
On an atmospheric
level, too, the Hughes have made an impressive picture. Filmed in Prague
rather than London, Whitechapel has been painstakingly recreated. What
could not be built has been done in computer graphics, and the only
times the seams show are when it's intentional. Abberline's dreams spill
into crimson skies over London, and though the Hughes are not exactly
Lynchian masters of hallucination, they may get there.
They have, however,
done a creditable job as Hitchcock imitators. Most of the violence is
filmed tastefully, implying more than is actually shown (like Psycho,
your mind will be convinced it saw far more than it did). What little
gore does appear onscreen is historically accurate, a sad reminder that
the greatest monsters are still ourselves.
It may seem a bit
clichéd, but this is a movie that will make you want to find out more
about its subject. You can visit your local library, or you can start
graphic novel. In either case, you won't be sorry.
What's It Worth?