FROM HELL ***
STARRING: Johnny Depp, Robbie Coltrane, Heather Graham, Ian Holm
DIRECTORS: Albert and Allen Hughes
RUNNING TIME: 147 minutes
RATING: Rated R for nudity, sex, drugs and much violence.
THE LOWDOWN: From Alan Moore's graphic novel, a new tale of Jack the Ripper's Whitechapel rampage.
"From Hell" is the newest dark film to be taken from that contemporary hybrid "the graphic novel" (i.e., a novel-length story told in pictures, like a comic book). In this case, it was Alan Moore's graphic novel about Jack the Ripper and the Whitechapel rampage. That, in its way, gave birth, as he said, to the horrors of the 20th century.
It's a smart, sinister and sumptuously atmospheric film about its subject - vaguely reminiscent in its lushly eerie way of David Cronenberg's brilliant film about twin murdering surgeons, "Dead Ringers." It was directed by Allen and Albert Hughes, previously known for the likes of such contemporary fare as "Menace II Society" and "Dead Presidents." If that doesn't exactly seem like typecasting, you're not asking the obvious question. (Why should directors ever be typecast?) They bring to this version something new: a notable and unusual emphasis on the "street" and social classes in division.
You're seeing an unusually pustulant and disease-ridden new version of Whitechapel here: whores with dirty faces and knobby complexions, grimy bars, streets with horse dung. When the higher reaches of Scotland Yard discover the Ripper's butcheries, one of the high muckety-mucks says: "Well, one thing's for sure, no Englishman could do this. What about the Jews? A Jew tailor might have done it." Most of the upper-crust types we see are aristocratic crustaceans apt to sneer at being "overrun" by everything outside their shells - "Orientals, Jews, foreigners," whomever. In their view, "England doesn't have whores, just a large class of unfortunate women."
The most gifted Scotland Yarder on the case is Johnny Depp, as a free-living bohemian who solves cases through visions, enjoys cocktails of laudanum, absinthe and sugar and who can sometimes be found in opium dens surrounded by naked women and others "chasing the dragon" (smoking opium).
Until we find out who the Ripper is, all we see are snatches of his life (he likes his London Broil rare and his claret laced with human blood). Clearly a man who can excise a human liver in the dark in just a few minutes is someone with a medical background.
What you might not realize underneath all this fantasy and slickly sinister cinema is how close "From Hell" hews to the latest in Ripper research and theory. The most dedicated "Ripperologists" have, for years, floated all sorts of theories about the Ripper's connection with the royal family and the Masons. The theory here is an absolute beaut and perfectly in keeping with the latest to be found in books and cable TV.
I like a lot of what the Hughes brothers do here to drag the whole era through this movie's porch. This was the time of John Meryck, the Elephant Man, the time when lobotomies were new and bosoms swelled out of dresses. Their cast, too, after Depp, is a strong one: Robbie Coltrane, as the semi-comic cop/partner, Ian Richardson as their anti-Semitic superior, the extraordinary Ian Holm as the ever-helpful royal surgeon, Heather Graham as the cop's whore girlfriend.
For all that is so seductive and accomplished, though, about "From Hell," what you can't get around at the end is one simple fact: As inventive and beautifully cast as it is, it's still just a Jack the Ripper movie.