From Hell (The Hughes Brothers, 2001)
[originally posted 5Nov2001]
Wondertwins Albert and Allen Hughes re-emerge (finally!) after five years to bring us their third Hollywood cinematic effort, From Hell. (In the interim, they filmed and released independently a feature-length documentary called American Pimp, recently reviewed here.) Based on Alan (Watchmen) Moore’s graphic novel, the tale focuses on Fred Abberline (Johnny Depp), a Scotland Yard inspector who, unfortunately for him, lands the case of Jack the Ripper. (Note: the main IMDB page for the movie contains a MAJOR spoiler, so avoid it if you’re planning on seeing the movie.) Abberline is a precognitive, and aids his visions with liberal use of opium and its derivative laudanum, often landing in subterranean opium dens, usually to be hauled out by staunch sidekick Peter Godley (Robbie Coltrane of Cracker fame). As they delve deeper into the investigation, they find that maybe bureaucracy isn’t all that’s holding them up; Abberline finds himself watched by Scotland Yard’s Special Branch, headed by the sinister Ben Kidney (veteran character actor Terence Harvey).
The movie is put together beautifully; not a scene is ill-shot or out of place, and the violence inherent in a retelling of the Ripper story is kept to an as-tasteful-as-possible minimum. The sweeping cinematography is on a par with Alex Proyas’ similarly claustrophobic Dark City (1998), and the film’s atmosphere is quite successful at drawing the viewer in.
Where From Hell fails its two Hughes-helmed predecessors is in the characterization. No character here gets the same pervasive treatment as did O-Dogg in Menace II Society, for example; many minor characters seem cardboard cutouts, and even Abberline and obligatory love interest (and historical Ripper victim) Mary Kelly (Heather Graham, finally coming up with a role with as much potential as the one she had in Drugstore Cowboy) don’t really get the depth of character they deserve. The characters are all too readily predictable, and the snarkier part of my mind wants to lay that fault at the doorstep of Alan Moore; after all, the Hughes Brothers have a long-established track record of bringing characters to life.
Which brings us to the other predictable element of the move: the plot. Even those unfamiliar with various Ripper hypotheses should be able to figure out who the Ripper is by halfway through the film, and the twist ending should be obvious even before the scene starts; despite this, Albert and Allen do have one last twist of the knife left for the penultimate scene. While the film doesn’t resolve as satisfactorily as did Menace or Dead Presidents, Hollywood hasn’t completely taken over the wunderkinder yet.
It’s certainly not the tour de force Menace II Society was, but From Hell is a surprisingly literate thriller in a year that’s given us the usual Hollywood helping of mindless dreck; another pearl in the string that already holds Memento and The Others. Too bad it has to be cast among such swine as See Spot Run, Jurassic Park III, The Princess Diaries, etc. etc. ad nauseam. *** ½