From Hell plays like purgatory for fans of comic
It is also a 500-page black and white graphic novel-and the Hughes brothers’ “From Hell,” the screen adaptation of Moore’s comic, suffers painfully in comparison.
Johnny Depp stars as Inspector Fred Abberline, a psychic detective who sees the Ripper’s murders in absinthe- and laudanum-drenched hallucinations; Heather Graham plays opposite Depp as Mary Kelly, one of five whores the Ripper sets out to murder. Depp and Graham mount a concerted assault on the film’s much vaunted “atmosphere,” an eerily well-groomed and forward-thinking pair of heartthrobs in a Whitechapel otherwise steeped in squalor and bigotry.
Depp does what he can with an Abberline curiously unaffected by the horrors haunting his dreams; Graham adds an atrocious faux-English accent to Mary’s improbable, wide-eyed innocence. Both characters ignore the supposed misery of their lives as if it were never there in the first place-prostitution is an excuse for Graham to show some cleavage, addiction is an excuse for Depp to get naked and smoke opium in the bathtub.
The plot offers little in the way of novelty. A bloody killing induces Scotland Yard to enlist the talents of a brilliant but wayward detective, who falls in love with a woman connected with the murders; he races to catch the murderer before the completion of his task-that is, the slaying of the detective’s lover. Along the way, the detective uncovers the occult/government conspiracy behind the killings and bravely flouts the Yard’s authority in pursuit of the truth, until he is removed from the case.
Predictable politics don’t end at Scotland Yard. The Hughes brothers make much of the parallels between Whitechapel and the subjects of their previous ghetto films (“Menace II Society”); but what may be resonating truths about today’s slums fall flat in 19th-century London. The brothers Hughes play the bigotry card until our knees are too tired to jerk, but the problem of prostitution is confined to a smarmy quip by Graham about the use of the term “unfortunates” to describe London’s whores.
The nominal love plot between Abberline and Mary is as tedious and contrived as the politics. One nasty argument and a few smoldering glances lead us into a passionate kiss in an alleyway; any development of the romance is forestalled by Abberline’s insistence that Mary and her friends get off the streets for their own safety. Graham and Depp lack chemistry and motivation; he seems more like a client than a paramour.
The film is liberally punctuated with visual montages; the jewel in the crown is a heavy-handed pre-murder scene where Saucy Jack eats bloody meat, brandishes his Masonic ring and prepares laudanum-infused grapes to lull his victims. The montages are pretty but incoherent, and the thematic effects are clunky and pointless: okay, it’s cool to use laudanum to establish a parallel between Abberline and the Ripper, but why bother?
It may be too much to expect Moore’s painstaking construction of the Ripper conspiracy to be reproduced in a two-hour film; the graphic novel is a psychological thriller, and the killer’s identity is known (and his plot developed) almost from the start. But the Hughes brothers’ exposition of the conspiracy is haphazard; the Masonic lore behind the murders is dashed off in a montage of library images and a few incoherent lines, and the roles and powers of the key conspirators remain, for the most part, unexplained.
Abberline’s prophetic dreams are particularly offensive. If a psychic had been able to foresee anything useful, the Ripper would have been caught; since he wasn’t caught, Abberline’s visions are restricted to incoherent flashes of the obvious and unhelpful. The murderer has an amputation kit-we already knew he was a doctor. The murderer mutilates his victims-big surprise. Too bad Abberline never manages to see his face. It’s also intriguing that Whitechapel’s other atrocities seem to elude Abberline’s hallucinations; perhaps he only tunes into Masonic killings?
You might think “From Hell” would end like “Titanic”-the boat has to sink, the whores have to die. Well, it’s close, but there is a twist. Unfortunately, it broadcasts itself for a solid half hour and, as if in repentance, doesn’t even follow through on the happy ending it promises. I can’t say much more about the end, except that the Ripper receives Texas justice; but we didn’t really get the chance to hate him anyway.
“From Hell” may not have been fated to be a major Hollywood feature-it has little glamour and no heroes, and the history and psychology at its foundation don’t translate easily into a two-hour thriller. But even accepting those constraints, the film falls short of its potential. My recommendation is probably predictable, but I stand by it: Save the price of your ticket toward a copy of the comic.