“One day men will look back and say I gave birth to the twentieth century.”
It is 1888. During the waning days of one of the hottest summers on record, a madman stalks the darkened night alleyways of Whitechapel killing prostitutes, terrorizing the citizens of one of London’s poorest (and densely populated) areas. He is Jack the Ripper and between August 31st and November 9th he ruled the streets, evaded capture, and took at least five lives.
From Hell is the Hughes’ brothers adaptation of the popular graphic novel of the same name by Alan Moore and artist Eddie Campbell, starring Johnny Depp as Detective Inspector Abberline, Heather Graham as Mary Kelly, Ian Holm as Sir William Gull, and Robbie Coltrane as Sergeant Peter Godley.
As many Ripperologists will tell you, no story will ever “get it right” when it comes to unraveling the truth about Jack the Ripper’s motives or true identity. With From Hell, we at least get an entertaining, and almost satisfactory, plausibility. But, can it be said to be even remotely accurate? Not exactly. Based on the much discussed royal conspiracy theory, From Hell holds its share of historical fabrications and errors and omissions.
But this is Hollywood, my lovelies, and for those who buy the ticket or rent the flick, these types of historical inaccuracies may, of course, be forgiven owing to the confident direction of the Hughes brothers whose bold style and atmospheric poise draw from, but are not remotely bound to, the source material of Moore and Campbell. Performances by Ian Holm and Robbie Coltrane are characteristic for the two – strong, capable, but not unnecessarily nuanced. Johnny Depp, on the other hand, may leave some viewers wringing their hands. Somewhat ill-cast as Frederick Abberline, who was significantly older than Depp at the time of the murders and bore no comparable physical resemblance to the man, it’s still fun to watch him chase the dragon and have fevered visions.
The sets are well designed with a measure of detail that places the film’s viewers in a front row seat to a macabre chapter in human history. After reading Donald Rumbelow’s The Complete Jack the Ripper, it was (dare I say) exhilarating to rewatch From Hell with an eye fresh from the actual crime scene photos and documents. But even though it may have once been lauded as a “bible” to Ripperologists, even Rumbelow’s findings could not stand the test of time. It’s fascinating to note that after 125 years, there is still more to glean from the crimes of the Ripper. And further, that the mystery would captivate us still, driving us – and our imaginations – in a relentless pursuit of the truth.
So, let’s get down to brass tacks.
If you’re one to buy into the royal conspiracy theory presented in the film, one that details secret societies and royally-sanctioned murder, then there is very little to negatively disseminate. The film, released in 2001, is richly stylish, full of the grit and grime of 1880’s London … that is, until you look at any of the actors. Indeed Mary Kelly, and her circle of “bangtail” associates, are far shinier and in fairer health than most anyone might have been during this time period in this section of London.
Here’s where knowing a bit about the time period and of the crimes can really hinder your movie going experience.
In an area so overpopulated that it was not uncommon that maybe 8 or more people might share a single room’s lodgings, the streets of the Hughes’ brothers Whitechapel are a bit sparse. In a scene where the women are shown to be sleeping, upright, tied around the waist with a bit of rope, you are given but a taste of the horrible, life-shredding conditions in which the people of Ripper’s London lived. But as far as giving it’s viewers a real slice, if you will, of authenticity, that’s where From Hell‘s attempts at getting it right more or less cease.
I think it may have helped to set the tone of desperation, of absolute need that drove these women to the night streets of London. For Mary Kelly, and the other women that inhabited her world, there was no other choice but to take to the streets. That Jack the Ripper stalked them was simply inconsequential to their need to make money for food, lodgings – to survive on the very basest of levels. Imagine having no choice whether or not to face this particular type of danger day in and day out. These women, and by extension those that inhabited Whitechapel, were already living in Hell. Starving, desperate for work, many of them unsure where they would spend the night. It was no wonder they railed against any show of authority, for no one had helped them much so far. In fact, it was as if they had been forgotten entirely.
This picture of everyday life in the East End is, to me at least, far more terrifying and gut wrenching than most of what’s presented in the film…
If you sense a bit of unfairness on my part, I assure you that, while From Hell is a less than a gripping mystery for those viewers who aren’t even remotely paying attention, it does succeed visually for those we can appreciate the fading/dying art of matte painting. And for those who are even a little curious about the Ripper, From Hell poses a glossy, even romantic portrait of the events surrounding the crimes.
As a savagely amateur Ripperologist, I can enjoy From Hell but I take it for what it is – entertainment. In no way should the film be taken as fact. Remembering always that details of the main characters and events have been altered to serve the story. It is, after all, a film. You’re meant to be entertained.
Some of your are clever, and won’t make it to the end without a clue as to whom the directors’ are fingering for the crime. If I could, I’d give you a shiny thruppence (okay, a schilling), for your keen attention if I felt the secret was even remotely guarded. But it’s not, and that means From Hell doesn’t really weave a spell of mystery befitting one of history’s most notorious figures.
For me, From Hell is a guilty indulgence, not entirely unlike a slice of cake, one which fleetingly pleases the taste buds but wreaks havoc on the internals.
I know it’s bad for me, but I can’t help myself.
If you find yourself being drawn into From Hell because of your curiosity surrounding the case, don’t be too hard on yourself. During the summer of 2013, to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Ripper case, I visited the grave of Francis Tumblety in upstate New York. Tumblety (who often went by different aliases like Lawrence Tumuelty) was, for some time, considered a prime suspect in the Ripper cases. So, console yourself with this, dear reader. If someone like me will travel thousands of miles for the slenderest of glimpses into our past, what crime is it then to spend a few hours indulging in a film?
Perhaps the identity of Jack the Ripper is never meant to be discerned, his or her motives veiled from us forever. Throughout history these types of unsolved crimes have egged us on, have encouraged the advancement of technology and methodology, have spun a mesmerizing effect on our imaginations and creativity. And while, with all of our current and future cunning, we may get a little closer to the truth, we’ll never really know. Will we? And isn’t that what keeps us coming back?
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