|Johnny Depp||Fred Abberline|
|Heather Graham||Mary Kelly|
|Directed by||Allen Hughes, Albert Hughes|
Be careful what you name your movie. A title like "From Hell" is like a hanging curve to the disappointed critic, ready to be pulverized with an angry chop of the bat. Happily for the Hughes Brothers, Allen and Albert ("Menace II Society", "Dead Presidents"), perpetrators of this cautionary Jack the Ripper tale, many critics have been enchanted with their new delivery, and allowed the curve to hang. Do not be seduced. This picture is everything its title suggests. "From Hell" is based on the graphic novel of the same name by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. A graphic novel is a one-shot comic book, and the Hughes Brothers have been able to maintain the genre?s two-dimensionality, with its cinema-inspired use of exaggerated light and shadow and dramatic camera angles transferred back through the printed page and back to the screen, where they have the uncomfortable feel of a sentence translated out of English and then back into it again.
The characters have the same cardboard depth of a comic book, despite the presence of some of the better actors around. Johnny Depp, who can almost always be counted on for something interesting even when the vehicle isn?t up to his talent, here plays Inspector Abberline of the London police and the opium den, not necessarily in that order. A despondent widower, he spends his off-duty time in a subterranean dive smoking the poppy and hallucinating, until his sidekick, Sergeant Godley (Robbie Coltrane) comes in to slap him around like Hardy chastising Laurel, and drag him back to work. Abberline is not a particularly brilliant sleuth; most of his breakthrough insights come from his opium-inspired dreams, wherein clues and faces and grisly murders are revealed to him.
Sherlock Holmes, who tackled the same case in "Murder by Decree" (1979) would not have stood still for this kind of cribbing from the supernatural. Holmes was a principled detective who kept his drugs and his ratiocination in their separate places. But then Abberline is from a lower social order. He?s a kid up from the streets, and his cockney persona hangs on Depp like something sent up from wardrobe.
It is a credit to Depp's ability that it fits as well as it does, which is a lot better than Heather Graham?s Irish prostitute Mary Kelly, one of a band of grimy lovelies tied together by the sisterhood of the streets and a secret to die for. We know Mary is an Irish prostitute (or "unfortunate", as the contemporary euphemism had it) because she tells us so, but her accent doesn?t suggest so much as a nodding acquaintance with the Emerald Isle, and her prostitute credentials seem more sitcom than Soho, though they do include a heart of gold. The story digs into the ample legend of one of history's most famous unsolved crimes, and follows the trail much trod by Ripper theorists that leads to the Royal Family. Despite the contention by his superior (Ian Richardson) that "one thing's for sure -- an Englishman didn?t do it", the clues point to that most English of men, the syphilitic Prince of Wales. But the cover-up plot, which concerns a princely liaison and a catastrophically legitimate child, takes extravagant and bloody turns around Robin Hood's barn that could have been avoided with a regrettable but simple bit of infanticide.
The Hughes Brother?s direction is often striking, but what strikes you most is the sense of familiarity and falseness that much of it carries. The research behind this story has been earnestly done, but the display of its wares feels like schooltime show-and-tell. The grapes, for instance. Grapes were apparently a rare delicacy in the Victorian London of 1888, affordable only to the swells; but this bit of trivia sits in the story with the naturalness of evidence planted by clumsy cops at a crime scene, and one wonders how long it takes for word to spread among the menaced in trollop society: "Don't accept grapes from strangers." Among the good actors diminished by this flashy but flimsy piece of period serial killing are Ian Holm as a society surgeon, Katrin Cartlidge as a Ripper victim, and Coltrane, who is reassuringly solid except when he is forced by the script to recite Shakespeare ("Goodnight, sweet prince.")
Freemasons figure conspiratorially in the plot, which extends, like Watergate, into the very highest reaches of government. There are enough knives to fill a cutlery drawer, knives flashing everywhere you look, in the hands of a raft of possible suspects. There are also surgical organ extractions, and lobotomies performed with a hammer and chisel. The movie keeps you guessing as to who really dunnit, but the answer isn?t a knockout surprise to an audience schooled in whodunnit protocols. The romance between Abberline and Kelly is perfunctory, unfelt, and strewn with awkward dialogue featuring a desire to return to "that place by the sea." When one of them finally does that, it comes none too soon.
© Text 2002 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be