Film Reviews:

From Hell

(Albert Hughes and Allen Hughes, US, 2001)

From Hell poster Another re-telling of the violent story of Victorian prostitute-slaying serial killer Jack the Ripper, this time based on Alan Moore's graphic novel, which was seized as pornographic when originally published, but which is now accepted as a classic.

The film adaptation plays like a standard modern serial killer thriller relocated to Victorian London: Manhunter versus Jack the Ripper. Ripper hunter Inspector Abbeline shares the psychic bond with the killer that Will Graham had in Manhunter, but his visions come too late to do much good. Worse, the story focuses on only the victims-to-be, who are all friends. By making them seem to be the only prostitutes in London, the film robs itself of the terror of a random killer who may strike anywhere. There's little detection, instead Abbeline reclines in opium dens, drinks absinthe, takes laudanum and has visions, giving him a share of the dissolute cool of the Romantic poets, and adding crucial Goth appeal.

Playing police Inspector Abbeline, Johnny Depp's English accent is distracting and unlikely. Heather Graham is slightly better as East End prostitute Mary Kelly. But worst of all are the English actors, who give their working class characters theatrical, gore blimey guvnor voices far sillier than anything the American stars manage. The dialogue doesn't help, being the kind of rubbish Eastenders scriptwriters churn out, subtle as a headbutt and stuffed with affected slang. The film shows Victorian society from top to bottom, from horrid old bag Queen Victoria right down to big-hearted East End whore Mary Kelly. Although admirable for trying to accuse the ruling classes and royalty of creating the environment where the killer can exist, the film fumbles its own point by not having any grasp of the class system it tries to attack. Tatty tart Mary visits a posh museum, and makes disparaging comments about a portrait of Queen Victoria, but its obvious to that a working class whore would never have got past the door in the first place.

From Hell's vibrant, visually beguiling fantasia of scuzzy Victorian London is ultimately as much of an invention as the Transylvania of Dracula, or Disneyland. The strongest moments come when it goes for pure fantasy: the weird, swooping drug visions. The first killing is handled brilliantly, but soon dodgy dummies start to appear. Like Coppola's Bram Stokers Dracula, From Hell is intermittently stunning, but always unconvincing, and occasionally just laughable. If only From Hell could be a silent movie, totally dialogue-free, simply a parade of beguiling images and music. It'd be far more effective, as its mise-en-scene is much more appealing than its creaky re-telling of an oft-told tale.

Adrian Horrocks

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