***/**** Image A- Sound A+ Extras A
starring Johnny Depp, Heather Graham, Ian Holm, Paul Rhys
screenplay by Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias, based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell
directed by Albert Hughes & Allen Hughes
by Walter Chaw Alan Moore's brilliant graphic novel From Hell is first a work of Romanticism (in that it evolves from a mistrust of industry, a demonizing of all that the rail represents to the continued corruption of nature), then a nostalgia for a hopelessly idealized past. Once his Romantic roots are established, Moore clarifies the evolutionary link between British Romanticism and Modernism by lifting a quote from Jack the Ripper's infamous letter: "One day, men will look back and say I gave birth to the twentieth century." As it's employed by Moore and in consideration of the author's grasp of literary theory, this one quote eloquently juxtaposes the impact of Bloody Jack's Grand Guignol rampage in London of 1888 with the fin de siècle (The French Revolution) that marked the actual birth of Romanticism in the Lake District of 1789. In simpler terms, From Hell is a work of incomparable incandescence--smart stuff for smart people and theoretically the easiest of Moore's works to translate to the big screen.
A successful translation of From Hell, however, would need to boast of at least a nodding acquaintance to Moore's bridging of two poetry genres, would ideally continue the envelope-pushing of the genre that Moore accomplished with the graphic novel's serialized form itself, and would somehow do these things without becoming ponderously intellectualized and hence dull. Given this Herculean task, the Hughes Brothers (best known for their urban drama Menace II Society), screenwriters Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias, a fabulous actor (Johnny Depp), and an A-list bimbo who looks lovely in a Victorian-era corset (Heather Graham), present a film that comes so tantalizingly close to fulfilling the source material's difficult criteria that it highlights two things. From Hell is an example of how a work of literature should be translated to the screen--that is, by people who understand it and understand the fundamental differences between the film and print mediums. It's also an example of how misplacing the emphasis of a work (very probably at the urging of a fidgety studio with a lot of money on the line) can change that work's effectiveness utterly. From Hell is ultimately a failure (if an enjoyable one) because it becomes too obsessed with the search for the identity of Jack the Ripper. If it had stuck with all that it got right, the film would be a queasy masterpiece.
Inspector Abberline (Depp) of Scotland Yard is addicted to opium in its raw form and as an extract in medicinal laudanum (the drug of choice for the Romanticists), indulging in its nepenthe embrace during his every off moment. The Hughes Brothers are well within their element in the orgiastic fetishism of the preparation and ingestion of pharmaceutical pastimes--I've never seen drug abuse so lush and decadent. During one of his ritual visits to an opium den, Abberline's "enhanced" consciousness leads to a vision of a "brick pincher"'s (one of a panoply of colourful euphemisms for "whore") gruesome murder on the grimy cobbled streets of the Whitechapel district. The first of the five Jack the Ripper murders that threw London into turmoil for a few short weeks in 1888, Abberline and his trusty Sergeant at arms (played by the exceptional Robbie Coltrane) are assigned to the case and slowly uncover a grand conspiracy involving the Royals and the Freemasons. Along the way we're given an impossibly beautiful picture of a London belched from the disquiet union of The Murder of Edwin Drood, The Jungle, and The Inferno, complete with visits inside the operating theatre of an asylum and a cameo by The Elephant Man upon his introduction to London high society.
As machine industry destroyed cottage industry and turned London into a seething pit of overpopulation, lacking sanitation and rampant with crime, the attention of the artistic community turned in the early 1900s to a regret of what was seen as the rape of nature and the death of symbiosis with the land. The railroad in England, in direct contrast to the railroad in the United States, became the symbol of the encroachment of industry into the pristine countryside. In the U.S., it was seen as the means by which more of nature could be discovered in a place so large that the possibility of it eventually following England into overcrowded and polluted decay was dismissed as outlandish.
From Hell is so on top of Moore's insight on trains as the key symbol of the Industrial Revolution's effect on the nostalgia that drove Romanticism (and later Modernism, in its machine gods) that two of the Ripper's bacchanalian frenzies are actually accompanied on the soundtrack by the clamour of the railroad. Consider also that after we witness a backlit train coughing coal smoke into an eerily twilit London skyline, the lead female Mary Kelly (Graham) clarifies her dream of returning home to the coast of Ireland with, "I'll be starving, yes, but at least I'll be starving in the fresh air." Elemental and vital, From Hell earns a recommendation from me if only for its wit in honouring this symbol but respecting its audience enough not to belabour the point.
From Hell is more than just a trope carried well, no matter how vital that trope is as the key to unravelling the literary spool at the heart of Moore's graphic novel. The production is magnificently realized: the lensing, the set design, the costuming, the washed-out hues are each so decadent and evocative that I saw William Blake's "mind-forged manacles" in the faces of the extras passing. In terms of technical achievement and visual texture, From Hell reminds the most of a Victorian Blade Runner--and I would go so far as to say that Johnny Depp is the superior "Deckard."
The problems with the film, and there are many, lie largely in the all-too-predictable descent into convention in its final third. Where the first two acts of From Hell rely upon the comfort-busting trippiness of Abberline's burnout ethic and the moral collapse of London under Victoria's prohibitive prudishness, the resolution and finale are dedicated to the disentangling of a conspiracy intrigue that attempts to distil several hundred pages of narrative into a quick series of clumsy revelatory monologues. From Hell falls prey to the "explicative fallacy"--that is, to the mistaken (or not-so mistaken) assumption that in order for a film to be popular, it must have a resolution that is easily understandable to the dumbest person in the audience. The picture is the victim of a quailing of resolve, a weakness that is all the more tragic because From Hell had the potential to be greater than an intriguing curiosity and an eventual cult favourite. Originally published: October 19, 2001.
by Bill Chambers Get it while it's hot: Fox's May 14, 2002 DVD release of From Hell is labelled "Directors' Limited Edition" because the studio will soon reissue the 2-disc set shorn of its second platter, as they have recently done with former double-troubles Cast Away and The Abyss. I don't care for the practice myself, though it does jack up the resale value considerably and thus provides extra incentive for an early purchase--I can almost defend it from a capitalist standpoint. (Unfortunately for us reviewers, we're sent screeners of Fox product rendered worthless in the collectible sense by promotional packaging and an absence of case inserts.) If you need more enticement than From Hell v1.0's narrow window of purchase, let me assure you that everything about this Hughes Brothers-supervised set is cool, from what I believe is the DVD debut of a new THX logo to a glimpse into the wonderful world of absinthe.
Said THX intro is reminiscent of the one found on T2: Ultimate Edition: a ball of lightning explodes and its shards morph together to form those famous initials. The audio is unbelievably spacious here and during From Hell proper, whose 5.1 mix (in Dolby Digital and slightly fuller DTS options) brings the sounds of nineteenth-century London to life with event-movie vigour; the climactic carriage chase will tax any system. This awesome soundtrack is married to a superior 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen video transfer that, like the Mulholland Drive DVD, could stand if anything a boost in contrast and shadow detail. (Coincidentally, or perhaps not, both films were photographed by Peter Deming.) Flesh tones are true and saturation is brilliant, with greens handled particularly well.
Disc 1 includes a pleasant and absorbing patchwork commentary by the Hugheses, screenwriter Rafael Yglesias, Deming, and Coltrane. I found Yglesias's contribution the most gratifying; one discovers as Yglesias sheds light on his process of adapting the Moore/Campbell work that he's teaching you the structure of the whodunit. The first platter also houses twenty-one deleted scenes (in 16x9-enhanced widescreen) with optional Hughes Brothers commentary. In order to give context to these omissions, footage from the final film (in black-and-white so as to be easily distinguishable) bookends each of them. Of note is an alternate ending (as seen on a recent episode of "Ebert & Roeper"), a montage of screwing, and an effective moment in which Jack the Ripper is almost caught by a drunk relieving himself against a fence. (This last bit was cut due in large part to the filmmakers' dissatisfaction with a camera move that looks fine to this outsider.)
Disc 2 is mainly featurettes. The gripping yet somewhat stilted 30-minute "Jack the Ripper: 6 Degrees of Separation" is even longer thanks to a white-rabbit function: clicking on the pop-up magnifying glass leads to interviews with coy subjects excerpted from a much older, unnamed British documentary about Jack the Ripper. A must for 'Ripperologists,' "6 Degrees..." debunks the motives of the three official suspects and presents authentic photos of the murder sites, unlike the Hugheses "Tour" of Whitechapel (8 mins.), which is actually a stroll through the detailed mock-up of the London district erected by art director Martin Childs in Prague. (The construction of which is covered in the 12-minute "Production Design," among other matters of location.)
We see the extent to which the source material informed the film's visual texture in "Graphic Novel" (10 mins.); panel-to-screen comparisons reveal that many of From Hell's establishing shots were lifted directly from Moore's often literally graphic illustrations. (The sex and violence are far more explicit on the page.) Finally, such experts as author Barnaby Conrad recount the history of a resurgent beverage in the educational "Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder" (10 mins.), and Heather Graham hosts the laughably-edited, comparatively disposable HBO special "A View From Hell" (15 mins.). Trailers for From Hell and the upcoming Unfaithful round out the fantastic "Directors' Limited Edition" of From Hell. Originally published: April 29, 2002.