In the century since his infamous, short-lived reign of terror, Jack the Ripper has inspired as much speculation as any criminal in history. The man who butchered five London prostitutes was never apprehended, leading to theories by the score about the unsolved case. He was a surgeon; he was royalty. He was a twisted deviant; he had a singular, clear-minded purpose. Books, documentaries and fanciful notions too numerous to count have appeared in the Ripper’s wake, each with its own story to tell.
And in the course of two hours, directors Allen and Albert Hughes appear to have made it their mission to acknowledge each and every one of them.
In From Hell, adapted from the 1999 graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, the Hughes Brothers (Menace II Society) chiefly want to turn the Jack the Ripper story into a metaphor for oppressive class injustice. But there are so many flourishes and sub-plots bumping up against that concept, it’s hard to keep it in focus. Despite a lavish production and a few provocative ideas, conventional and undisciplined storytelling takes a scalpel and eviscerates the film.
The events take place, of course, in 1888 London, where prostitutes are turning up dead and mutilated in the red light district of Whitechapel. The intrepid investigator is Inspector Fred Abberline (Johnny Depp), who’s frequently intoxicated, with a taste for opium. He’s shaken from his stupor by his partner Peter Godley (Robbie Coltrane) long enough for his occasional psychic visions and forensic insight to inform him that these are no simple murders, or even the work of ruthless pimps. There’s something ritualistic about the crimes, which seem to have been committed by someone with a medical background, and a connection between the victims. Even before he begins getting chummy with prostitute Mary Kelly (Heather Graham), Inspector Abberline smells something fishy in London’s corridors of power.
From the outset, the Hughes Brothers show their interest in taking a sympathetic peek through the windows of Victorian London’s working classes, sweeping down from the rooftops into a re-creation of Whitechapel’s cobblestone streets. Lines of class, race and ethnicity are as clearly drawn in From Hell as they were in 19th century England—prostitutes are euphemistically referred to as “unfortunates,” foreigners and Jews become instant suspects when anything is amiss, and the idea that a gentleman could have committed brutal murders is greeted with derision. At the dark heart of the film dwells the notion that getting away with murder generally only requires that the killer be far more connected than the victim. Blue blood, the Hughes’ would have us know, is thicker than spilled blood.
Unfortunately, it’s not a particularly original idea. From Hell often gives off the vibe of a Victorian Chinatown, with corruption thriving as the powerful work to preserve power. Johnny Depp—who really, for his own sanity, ought to play a good old-fashioned doctor or lawyer someday—earnestly plays the determined Abberline, who runs into threatening thugs and mingles with upper-crusters like Sir William Gull (Ian Holm), physician to the Royal Family. Like a turn-of-the-century Jake Gittes, he learns the hard way that sometimes you just need to forget it, Fred … it’s Whitechapel.
And when he’s not Jake Gittes, he’s Fox Mulder. Much of From Hell plays out like a particularly graphic episode of The X Files, with the unconventional law enforcement agent poking around in dark conspiracies that could involve a government cover-up. Abberline’s precognitive flashes add to the story’s aura of supernatural horror, but ultimately contribute nothing to the character or to the narrative. In fact, they make the mundane backstory of Abberline’s lost wife and child seem simply redundant as a reason behind his addiction—you’d think seeing glimpses of murders every time he closed his eyes would be plenty to send a man into a self-medicating haze.
But that’s just one more example of the busyness that characterizes From Hell. This is a film that steers away from the graphic novel’s more compelling whydunnit questions to become a fairly standard whodunnit, and making the Ripper’s identity a mystery merely adds to the feeling that there’s too damned much going on for no good reason. Suspects flit in and out just long enough for the words “red herring” to be visible on their clothing. John “The Elephant Man” Merrick pops for a cameo at a hospital benefit function. Abberline and Mary predictably become romantically involved. The Freemasons, Queen Victoria and trendy medical theories all get a sound thrashing. By the time From Hell reaches its conclusion, it’s too easy to forget why we were along for the ride in the first place.
It’s a shame the Hughes Brothers never find their center, because there’s plenty of splendid stuff on the periphery. The physical production captures Victorian street-level squalor, along with some disturbingly authentic-looking corpses. Creepy-quick subliminal images jitter in and out of the frame in saturated colors, ratcheting up the tension almost as much as the guillotine sound of a set of descending carriage stairs. It’s by far the most visually impressive work the Hughes Brothers have done, and on some levels it’s a viscerally effective genre piece.
This, however, was supposed to be a Jack the Ripper story that was about something, one that made some psychological and sociological sense of those many stories that have trickled down through the decades. After two hours of From Hell, you still don’t know Jack.
From Hell (R) HH Directed by The Hughes Brothers. Starring Johnny Depp, Heather Graham and Ian Holm.