A vivid yet distinctly fictitious recreation of the crime-plagued gutters of 19th Century London, the Jack the Ripper thriller "From Hell" is quite a homage to the dense graphic novel from which it was spawned.
It's nothing if not atmospheric, what with its opulently dingy, blood-red set dressings, its pinched-cheek and cheap-corset prostitutes, and its opium- and absinthe-addicted hero -- an unorthodox Scotland Yard Inspector named Abberline (Johnny Depp in lambchop sideburns) who discovers dangerous secrets in the Ripper's ritualized killings.
The film's talented directors -- brothers Allen and Albert Hughes ("Menace II Society," "Dead Presidents"), definitively demonstrating there's more to them than ghetto fare -- blend quite a transporting concoction with their viscous visuals, menacing moodiness, puzzling plot and heady performances.
But engrossing as it can be at times, "From Hell" is not the sum of its parts. Try as they might, the Hughes' aren't able to wipe Hollywood's hollow, gimmicky fingerprints from their final print.
Like its comic book inspiration, the film theorizes that the never-identified hooker hacker Jack the Ripper was a man of means and education. His victims were brutalized with surgical precision and, the evidence suggests, with surgical instruments. Abberline suspects his man is a well-to-do doctor, and that theory doesn't sit well with his superiors.
But apparently acting on the assumption that audiences wouldn't sit still for an unsolved mystery, "From Hell" concocts a speculative, satanic, Sherlock Holmesian conclusion and does name names. I won't spoil it here, of course, but the scenario includes a majestic conspiracy of credibility-stretching proportions.
In trying to sustain suspense, the Hughes boys keep this collusion murky, making the movie's true plot hard to follow. Meanwhile, in the foreground they trot out the gruesome details of the murders to give the picture a horror bent, and provide further distraction with a burdensome, improbable romance between Abberline and Mary Kelly (Heather Graham), a redheaded streetwalker on Jack's hit list.
The inspector's conjecture and investigation are driven by intelligence, but substantial details (names and places) are presented abruptly and confusingly while simplistic, circumstantial clues (the victims were all eating grapes when killed) are unduly accentuated.
Depp's performance carries the movie, to a certain extent, because his is the only character with tangible depth. We witness Abberline's disturbing visions, and the drug-fueled process that brings them about. We know of his unhappy past (his wife died while delivering their stillborn daughter) and understand his determination.
Graham isn't so lucky. Mary's only distinguishing characteristic is that she seems to have bathed and brushed her teeth more recently than the other harlots. Abberline's assistant (Robbie Coltrane) serves little purpose but to quote Shakespeare from time to time, and Ian Holm plays a retired surgeon -- and Queen Victoria's court physician -- who secretly helps confirm Abberline's theories about the Ripper. His character is more complex, but only because you're expected to wonder about his motives.
Visionary and absorbing in many ways, "From Hell" is not a failure, per se. As serial killer thrillers go, its suspense is adequate and its psychological edge is sharper than most. But where "From Hell" does fail is in retrospect -- it just doesn't leave the kind of impression that sticks with you longer than the aftertaste of your popcorn.
Run time: 122 mins
In Theaters: Friday 19th October 2001
Box Office USA: $30.7M
Box Office Worldwide: $74.6M
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Production compaines: 20th Century Fox
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 57%
Fresh: 86 Rotten: 64
IMDB: 6.8 / 10
Director: Hughes Brothers
Starring: Johnny Depp as Inspector Frederick Abberline, Heather Graham as Mary Kelly, Ian Holm as Sir William Gull, Robbie Coltrane as Sergeant Peter Godley, Ian Richardson as Sir Charles Warren, Jason Flemyng as Netley, the Coachman, Katrin Cartlidge as Dark Annie Chapman, Terence Harvey as Benjamin 'Ben' Kidney, Susan Lynch as Liz Stride, Paul Rhys as Dr. Ferral, Lesley Sharp as Kate Eddowes, Estelle Skornik as Ada, Nicholas McGaughey as Officer Bolt, Annabelle Apsion as Polly Nichols, Joanna Page as Ann Crook
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