From Hell shows the Hughes brothers (Albert and Allen) making good on the promise they displayed in earlier "urban" movies like Menace II Society and Dead Presidents. Which is one of the many reasons to like From Hell, for even though it's set in 1888 London during the infamous Jack the Ripper's serial killing spree, the African-American brother directing duo boasts that this is just another "urban" crime drama.
What a novel idea, pardoning any pun since the film is inspired by the critically hailed graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. But it's a key point here, because for all the style that this pair provides -- sped-up cinematography, lavish costumes, scenes bleeding in ash and red, a fair share of gore -- there is a surprising amount of commentary bubbling underneath what is supposed to be another Grand Guignol of a thriller. Not quite. In this fictionalized telling of the Jack the Ripper murder mystery -- the unsolved crime of the brutal stabbings and disembowelments of Whitechapel District prostitutes -- screenwriters Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias and the Hughes brothers see the killings as a conspiracy that may go all the way up to Queen Victoria. While there's plenty of gore, the filmmakers seem more intent on unnerving than frightening.
In their earlier works, the Hughes brothers got plenty of credit for what were essentially stylistic and good-intentioned crime dramas, but one could feel the pull of melodrama weighing them down. And yet, in this chilling period piece, everything feels perfect, perhaps because melodrama plays better through the haze of a foreign time and place cemented in legend.
The Hughes brothers go one step further by adding the layers of not only the conspiracy theory -- which makes a whole lot of sense -- but also by casting the prostitutes (and most of the Whitechapel denizens) as cruel victims of England's socioeconomic indifference. Indeed, history bears this out; Whitechapel was a horrific place to live. And women bore the brunt of this oppression, many of whom were forced to turn to prostitution. Indeed, one could take the film's title and apply it to Whitechapel instead of the killer's place of origin.
But enough of the history lesson. The real question is, how good do Johnny Depp and Heather Graham look, right? Once again, the Hughes brothers are right on the mark. Depp's one of the brightest stars of his young generation, always zigging when we think he'll zag, and we love him for it -- partly because of those soft brown eyes and smooth skin. As the opium-addled Inspector Abberline, Depp fights through his dragon-chasing haze (and grief over his dead wife) to find the truth, catch the killer and protect the prostitutes. And for good reason; Heather Graham, as the real-life Mary Kelly, is of course the beautiful hooker with the heart of gold, even if her crimson mane is the boldest of red flags.
While Depp's Abberline dead-pans his way through the film, a man as grim as the crime he's investigating, Graham's Mary is typical of her previous work. Graham's no technician, as limited an actress as there is going today, but she always stays within herself, playing to the strengths that lie in her big green eyes, high cheekbones and ample cleavage. But she's also a yard smarter than her friends, more angry than scared while fighting to survive.
It's no coincidence that these two provide the serene island beauty in contrast to one of the ugliest Londons ever to hit the big screen. In fact, there is ugliness everywhere: on the rat-infested cobblestone streets, in the seedy tenements where the prostitutes take a breather, in the bars where they drown their sorrows, and yes, even in Jack the Ripper's black heart. If anyone's going to survive this terror, it's got to the pretty people.
For that to happen, the crime has to be solved, and while it would be imprudent to give away the ending, in this version the crime is solved. And while the film has been criticized elsewhere for not being true to the graphic novel, I'd argue that it doesn't matter one lick. The Hughes brothers, ever the craftsmen, build the mystery block by block, dropping all the right clues at the right time, tossing out the usual red herring or two to set up the suspects. And even if you've figured it out a little early, you still enjoy the buildup set against the turn of a very important century. This was a time when mankind was just starting to grasp the potential of science, but here it's still a source of wonder and suspicion. A brief scene that involves the famed "Elephant Man," John Merrick, shows men of science gawking at the deformed man, not knowing quite what to do.
Aside from Depp and Graham, the Hughes benefit from an excellent supporting cast (thankfully Brits all, just about), including Robbie Coltrane as Abberline's faithful but weary cohort and the legendary Sir Ian Holm as a helpful royal family physician. Together with the Hughes brothers, From Hell becomes a nice little slice of movie-watching heaven.