From Hell

Johnny Depp is an inspector who uses unconventional means to solve murders in this new period film draped in darkness and containing supernatural overtones. No, this is not Sleepy Hollow, this is From Hell, an adaptation of the popular graphic novel (i.e. thick comic book) by modern legends Alan Moore (who also authored the genre redefining Watchmen) and Eddie Campbell. Co-directors Albert and Allen Hughes (American Pimp, Dead Presidents) were apparently so enamored with the exhaustively researched graphic novel that they used panels from it as storyboards, giving From Hell a very comic bookish look. The Hughes brothers adapt Moore and Campbell's theory as to the 'true' identity of Jack the Ripper, throwing him into the midst of a huge conspiracy that goes just about as high as possible in England.

Depp (Blow, The Man Who Cried) is Inspector Abberline, a policeman assigned to investigate the case. He is unusual because he can 'see' the murders in his head beforehand. He believes that the various clues point to an upperclassman as the murderer, something his superiors scoff at. The bodies demonstrate a working knowledge of surgery, and a hatred of women. They believe Jack the Ripper to be a lowerclassman, preferably an immigrant or a Jew. Abberline turns to Mary Kelly (Heather Graham, Say It Isn't So, Committed), a prostitute. She is especially important because the killer is targeting her small circle of friends, presumably because of some knowledge they have. She is initially extremely wary of his intentions, but once she realizes he actually does want to help, she opens up. The only other person Abberline has to turn to is Sir William Gull (Ian Holm, Bless The Child, Beautiful Joe), a physician and teacher that is consulting with him on the murders.

There are a huge number of roles in From Hell (the production notes state over 60 speaking parts), which makes the adaptation by Terry Hayes (Vertical Limit, Payback) and Rafael Yglesias (Les Miserables, Death and the Maiden) sometimes confusing. There are people whose roles are so small yet the story makes them seem so important that one can get lost in the detail. Part of the reason is to set up a number of false leads, so the viewer can keep guessing as to the identity of Jack the Ripper. Kelly's fellow prostitutes do not have enough screen time to make them indistinguishable as characters, so they merely seem like the brunette or the blond, or any other superficial characteristic. Their grisly killings also do not add as much tension as the Hughes brothers probably wanted, and although it is hard to discern the identity of the killer, there is never a huge amount of suspense regarding who it actually is. Graham is probably the best looking (and cleanest) prostitute ever to grace the streets of pre-20th century England, but to her credit she does hold her accent and appear sympathetic yet feisty.

Depp's performance is the core of this movie. He continually chooses roles that challenge his acting ability, and although Abberline may not push the envelope in terms of range, it does give him many chances to act. A sense of justice drives Abberline. He has his flaws (including an addiction to opium) yet wants the truth to prevail, even when it runs counter to the wishes of his bosses. Depp adds a certain mystique to Abberline, so nobody quite knows what is going on in his head. It makes the people around him and the audience a little nervous, since he always seems to know more than he lets on. Yet better than Depp is the look of From Hell. London has never looked seedier. The skies are sometimes red, otherwise gray with pollution. Alleys are dank and slimy, with people casting long deep shadows as they walk. The portrayals of Jack the Ripper are especially well done, all filmed at low angles from the shadows, emphasizing silhouettes or cape flourishes. Abberline's visions of the murderers are unsettling, bathed in fuzzy green, yellow and red lighting. So From Hell, while never attaining a high level of intensity, ends up as a moody and atmospheric.

Haro Rates It: Not Bad.
2 hours, 1 minute, Rated R for strong violence/gore, sexuality, language, and drug content.

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