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From Hell   A-

20th Century Fox

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: R
Directors: Albert Hughes, Allen Hughes
Writers: Terry Hayes, Rafael Yglesias (based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell)
Cast: Johnny Depp, Heather Graham, Ian Holm, Katrin Cartlidge, Robbie Coltrane, Paul Rhys, Joanna Page, Jason Flemyng, Susan Lynch.

Review by Rob Vaux
"Five murdered paupers, one anonymous assailant. This reality is dwarfed by the vast theme park we've built around it."
--Alan Moore, From Hell

The story of Jack the Ripper, who slaughtered five prostitutes in London's Whitechapel district during the autumn of 1888, has grown over the years into one of history's greatest legends. Fueled by tabloid exploitation, popularized in lurid serials and academic treatises, it retains its potency in part because they simply never caught the man. Numerous serial killers have arisen since then, yet none of them gripped our psyche the way he has. They were eventually uncovered after all; we saw their faces, heard their often-pathetic stories, removed their ability to frighten us, and locked them safely away. Not so the Ripper. He vanished into the London fog just as readily as he appeared, leaving behind a cipher for all our fears and anxieties. Had they found him and revealed him for the illiterate butcher's assistant he probably was, we would have shrugged our shoulders and forgotten. But because he evaded our roving eye, we can give him any identity we choose... and turn him into perhaps the ultimate historical bogeyman.

So argues the exquisite graphic novel From Hell, by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. Part social meditation, part conspiracy theory, part Grand Guignol melodrama, it not only presents a thoroughly engrossing tale of the ripper's crimes, but dares to chide us for enjoying it. Now comes a cinematic adaptation -- mockingly referred to in the book, only to find vibrant life in the hands of brothers Allen and Albert Hughes. While refraining from the darkest aspects of the source material, it still presents a compelling vision of London's most infamous criminal.

Naturally, any story about the Ripper must embrace a certain amount of fiction; From Hell goes full bore, delivering a variation on the story as preposterous as it is engaging. The five prostitutes -- friends, led by Heather Graham's redheaded Marie Kelly -- become caught up in a lethal conspiracy, cut down one by one for reasons they can barely comprehend. Normally, the death of a Whitechapel whore means nothing -- they live in appalling conditions where murder is a way of life. But the brutality of the crimes prompts the police to assign their best to the case. Inspector Fred Abberline (a well-tuned Johnny Depp) a gaunt opium addict who suffers from visions and premonitions, soon develops an intriguing lead on the killer's identity. He believes the killer comes from the upper class, and his assumptions soon lead him to the heart of London's elite. There's more at work here than a simple madman -- someone wants these women dead for a reason.

The Hughes brothers take a lush, atmospheric approach to the tale, positing an engaging whodunit beneath a gorgeously realized London. They do a fine job realizing the tale's romantic aspects -- the fog-shrouded streets, the haunted moon, the Ripper with his bag and top hat -- without overwhelming the mystery. Strong supporting performances from some fine British actors (topped by Robbie Coltrane as Abberline's keeper/assistant) round out the lovely visuals. From Hell has a good eye for historical detail, contrasting nicely with story's sensationalist aspects. The plot here is pure fantasy, and yet fits the facts, which further illustrates the Ripper's appeal. Any explanation, no matter how far-fetched, can still be made to jibe with what we know. The brothers do an admirable job of balancing myth with fact, and keep their story neatly ensconced with the historical details of the case.

And yet, as enticing as this melodrama is, they never allow it to run away with them. Rather than sit contentedly on a Hammer-style potboiler, they use it to deliver some very pointed commentary on class differences, the corruption of power, and the petty lies that allow us to live with monsters. The Ripper murders speak volumes about London's rulers: the galling hypocrisy of those who wanted these women dead, but didn't want to see the blood. Here, From Hell finds its real strength. The story engages us, yet never allows us to revel in the grim proceedings, and the deeper issues arise without pretension or self-righteousness. The most revealing aspect involves the Ripper's victims, whom the brothers treat with surprising humanity. We see a great deal of their existence in the course of the film, and come to understand how they lived as much as how they died. The quintet all have hard faces and hard eyes (with the exception of Graham, who tries hard but just can't shake her movie star glamour), speaking of dreary, hopeless years spent in the worst possible surroundings. We feel for them, and see them as more than just pieces of meat. From Hell commits to revealing that basic dignity, which elevates it far above the high-gloss trash it might have become.

In the end, the film speaks as much about us as it does Victorian London. As much as we might like to pretend otherwise, the victims were real, their fate a historical fact. We take our pleasure in this story -- and the filmmakers take pleasure in showing it to us -- but it never lets us forget the real blood at its roots. From Hell knows how to show us what we want without dodging the moral implications of looking: a fiendish case of having one's cake and eating it too.

Review published 10.22.2001.

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