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IN SHORT: One dope fiend. One classy whore. An incomprehensible mess that will have you thinking you're sitting in Hell yourself. [Rated R for strong violence/gore, sexuality, language and drug content. 137 minutes]
There are book adaptations that do the remarkable job of keeping the essence of the story while removing the fluff. There are adaptations that are flat out lousy, yielding films that are hard to sit through. Then there is the adaptation by Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias of From Hell, a 500 page (plus 30 more of historical research and notes) graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell which guts a heavily researched conspiracy theory, scattering its details like entrails on the streets of London's East End, back in the days of Jack the Ripper, the alleged subject of the story. The adaptation is such that Moore has publicly disavowed any connection with the film. That being said, we remind y'all that it is a standing policy of this site not to compare films to their Source Material. You shouldn't have to read the book to understand what's on the big screen.
We walked in with high expectations. Flashing knives. Spurting blood. The first and most legendary of all serial killers. A definite guy flick.
A serious disappointment.
The East End of London, 1888, was not a place where the "civilized" upper-class of England tended to hang out, save the few gentlemen seeking an anonymous tumble with the women who worked the streets, forced into prostitution by a vicious economic system that allowed men to abandon their families without monetary punishment. That's a little tidbit buried deep in conversations between Scotland Yard Inspector Fred Abberline (Johnny Depp, click for StarTalk) and a flamed haired whore called Mary Kelly (Heather Graham, click for StarTalk). But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Kelly and her cohorts Annie Chapman (Katrin Cartlidge), Kate Eddowes (Lesley Sharp), Liz Stride (Susan Lynch) work the streets hoping against hope that one day they may land the kind of rich gentleman sugar daddy that Annie Crook (Joanna Page) did. Crook is seen showing off her baby daughter Alice to her pals and, shortly thereafter, is abducted by a coachful of ominous looking men in black. Shortly thereafter, the murders begin. First, someone called Martha Tabram. Then, Dark Annie Chapman.
Sloppy storytelling starts here: the baby, whose existence plays a major role in the overall story, vanishes from the story at this point. You'll have to listen closely to the dialog to find out what happens to her prior to From Hell's completely unbelievable resolution. We won't spill that twist, but it involves the color red.
Inspector Abberline is called into the East End after the second murder. His superiors want the cases closed quickly, with some appropriate tailor or butcher nailed for the crimes. Abberline takes his detecting work more seriously, noting that the killing styles in both cases were radically different. One was a flat out butchering. The second a more methodical dissection, akin to something you might see in a medical school. When his superiors refuse to fund the hiring of a surgeon to consult on the case, Abberline seeks one out on his own, enlisting the aid of Sir William Gull (Ian Holm), a Physician Ordinary to the Crown. Gull confirms Abberline's deduction and we get to meet some surgeons -- none whose characters are developed enough to offer any question as to who wielded the Liston knife used in the killings. As the killings progress, Gull is relied upon more and more for insight and counsel.
That's a good thing, as Abberline's method of operation is unlike any we've seen from this Holmesian Era. He smokes opium. He drinks laudanum. He gets blotto out of his skull. The visions that result from his hallucinogenic indulgences guide him in his quest to discover the link between the killings that come next and the identity of the Ripper. All the while his right hand man, Peter Godley (Robbie Coltrane) is on standby to rescue his pal from whatever opium den he's flopped in.
The Ripper, aided by his coachman and cohort Netley (Jason Flemyng) proceeds with his assignments which, through a link involving advisor to the Crown, Sir Charles Warren (Ian Richardson), subtly implicate Queen Victoria herself in the conspiracy. Why can Netley stomach being a part of the grisly killing spree? Why, that brings us to his desire to raise his social status via membership in the Secret Order of Freemasonry, a sect whose member include Warren, Gull, the Ripper and most of the upper-upperclass of London's intelligentsia, all of whom seem to know everything about all that is going on over in the East End . . .
Sorry, that's the logical explanation from the book. In the film Netley is told it doesn't matter what he does because he is already living in Hell. Ah, socio-economic metaphors as plot points. Feh.
It doesn't make any sense putting it in black and white and it doesn't make any sense the way the Hughes Brothers tell it on screen. It's all well and good to involve the government in a murder conspiracy -- JFK versus the CIA, anyone? -- but it helps if the film gets the how and why across to the audience, which From Hell doesn't. We've explained more of it than the film does and are still holding back for fear of spoiling what passes for mystery in this almost incomprehensible mess.
Why is it a mess? From Hell isn't a Ripper story at all. It's a love story between a middle class cop and a lower class streetwalker. Once the Ripper becomes inconsequential to the mix, all you've got left is the chemistry between the stars to keep you interested as the threat builds. That threat is all that is needed to put danger in a simple love story. Nonsense like the involvement of the Masons, and an absurd scene that occurs at the time of the final murder, gets in the way and derails what chemistry does exist between Depp and Graham.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Nine Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to From Hell, he would have paid . . .
The production design is lovely, though.
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