From Hell

| October 26, 2001

The Hughes brothers do such an incredible job recreating the pungent, smoky atmosphere of 19th Century London, that by the end of the film, I was kind of wishing they had foregone the mystery entirely.
From Hell is the Hughes Brothers’ first foray outside of black culture, but it still deals with issues of class, corruption and crime. Johnny Depp plays Inspector Abberline, the unorthodox detective in charge of investigating of a string of murders, the victims of which are all prostitutes. Abberline spends his free time in opium dens, getting smashed and then having visions that help him solve his cases. Along with his friend and colleague, a police sergeant played by Robbie Coltrane, Abberline investigates the crimes and comes away convinced that they are not the work of cheap hoods but the work of “an entirely new breed of killer, known to us as Jack the Ripper.
The film succeeds spectacularly well in conveying the filth and desperation on the streets of London, and the Hughes Brothers do a skillful job of putting the film together and maintaining a somber sense of dread and terror. But, as Abberline gets more and more engrossed in the crimes, and the viewer is drawn in with him, Jack the Ripper is presented less as a madman than as a rogue tool of conspiring forces in which most audiences will have little interest.
By straying away from the fright elements of Jack the Ripper and his senseless mutilations, the film gets bogged down in intricate details surrounding the corrupt English government, complete with crooked policemen and a league of sinister surgeons. I found myself losing interest in the conspiracy and wishing the directors had gone with a script that was less intent on exposing the identity of the killer and more satisfied with presenting the overwhelming dread created by the crimes. Aside from the aura of his legend, I doubt most contemporary American audiences are interested in exactly who Jack the Ripper was, and why he did what he did, and by thrusting us into a meaningless maze of back story and shady motivation, the film loses its impact and momentum. By the time the killer is revealed, it means little.
Heather Graham has the role of Mary Kelly, one of the endangered prostitutes, and while she is mightily appealing, her character is underwritten and the bittersweet fate that befalls her and Depp’s character was a little too sappy for me. Depp does a good job with yet another “unorthodox” character, letting both his emotion and intelligence manifest as he hunts for the killer, against a sea of opposition, and the aspects of his drug addiction are handled nicely.
At turns intense, frightening, gory and convoluted, From Hell can’t find equal footing between elaborate, inconsequential crime drama and effective, powerfully rendered mood piece. The direction is excellent, but even the Brothers’ breathtaking visuals cannot overcome the script’s shortcomings. Entertaining but substantially flawed, From Hell looks great and scares some, but is too concerned with the mystery of the Ripper to effectively connect us to the characters.

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