From Hell (18)
AFTER years of legend and myth-making comes a movie that should have wrapped up all the various blood-spattered strands surrounding Springheeled Jack into one tidy surgeon’s knot.
Instead this well-intended attempt to dramatise the Whitechapel murders of 1888 only serves to further muddy the waters of a case that has, for 114 years, baffled and confused historians and crime buffs alike.
Taking its lead from the first in a series of bloody slayings and then going on to invest the story with as many red herrings and conspiracy theories as possible, From Hell is undoubtedly the most stylish version of the deeds of Jack the Ripper but one that eventually unravels despite itself.
Opening onto a red-soaked, jagged roofscape where the various eaves and chimneys resemble knife-blades pointing to the unforgiving heavens, directors Allen and Albert Hughes descend into a hellish world of opium dens, sewage-strewn cobbled streets and alleyways, pimps, prostitutes and a top-hatted psychopath with a glinting blade in his hand.
The story is boldly presented, with the first glimpse of Saucy Jack coming as he kneels over his wide-eyed victim like a silver-taloned black wolf. Building rapidly and accelerating forward it introduces psychic detective Fred Abberline (Johnny Depp) as he slumps into stupor in an opium den, and his stolid sergeant Peter Godley (Robbie Coltrane).
Despite his fondness for absinthe and laudanum Abberline remains focused on the case as more women are butchered, declaring ‘This ain’t killing for profit. This is ritual’ as he considers another gutted corpse.
More detective work lifts the lid on the traditional elements of the case – freemasonry, rampant racism and a Royal scandal – as the various plot strands are stitched together in a film that is skillfully and stylishly executed.
Yet all Depp’s hard work is undermined not just by his wavering London accent but also by the Hughes Brothers’ caution in trying to make a film to suit all audiences.
Taken directly from the gruesome graphic novel by Alan Moore From Hell should be a calculatedly macabre and gripping tale that relies as much on the power of gore as it does on suggestion and shadow.
Instead it becomes neither, with the murders committed off camera and the gore restricted to a minimum. Tension fails to rise above the occasional increase in pulse rate and the requisite dizzying approach of paranoia, neurosis and sheer terror never happens.
Performances are adequate and unmemorable save for that of the actor eventually revealed to be the killer – a stunning metamorphosis into black-eyed evil. The most glaring piece of miscasting is that of Heather Graham, surely the most rosy-cheeked, healthy and bright-eyed whore ever to parade the streets of London.
With a story so familiar and so well-tread perhaps the Hughes Brothers have done the right thing in concocting a new tale from the layers of myth, rumour and half-truth that have cloaked the deeds of Jack the Ripper for more than a century.
Yet until a filmmaker emerges with the discipline to tell the story rigidly and without gloss the terrifying legend of Jack will remain forever that: a legend built on truth but lost in the mists of time.