- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 20, 2001

''From Hell" is an avidly faithful adaptation of an elaborate graphic novel about the Jack the Ripper murder spree, which terrorized the East End of London in 1888 and galvanized the tabloid press of the period into sensational coverage.

The killer, an elusive publicity seeker who communicated smugly with the Central News Agency before and after mutilating his five victims most of them streetwalkers in their mid-40s supplied the term "From Hell" and nicknamed himself both the Ripper and "Saucy Jack."

The fraternal team of Allen and Albert Hughes may have spent too many years steeped in an obsession with Ripper lore and legend. They leave the impression of being armchair or scholastic ghouls in their approach to bygone criminal menace and abiding mystery.

"From Hell" is alienating in a coldblooded, morbidly academic way. The movie consistently overrates portentous, shadowy settings at the expense of compelling human interest.

Johnny Depp plays the overmatched homicide detective Fred Abberline, the Scotland Yard inspector entrusted with investigating the murders, and the entire scenario begins and ends in an opium den, Abberline's favorite haunt. This makes it conceptually easy to doubt the authenticity of anything depicted. The whole movie might be an Abberline narcotic hallucination, which also teems with premonitions of murder that the poor sleuth, a man of constant sorrows, proves incapable of channeling into useful preventive measures.

The Ripper's crime wave was short-lived between August and November 1888 and the killer never was apprehended, so a vast literature of speculation emerged about the identity of the self-flattering fiend. About 10 "prime suspects" remain on the A-list repeatedly scrutinized by historians, polemicists and hobbyists.

For the past generation or so, the favorite approach has been to suspect that one of Queen Victoria's sons, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, was implicated not necessarily as the Ripper himself but as a beneficiary of the crimes in some scandalous way.

"From Hell" adheres to this line, in part because it accommodates a maximum of class and period scorn. The Hughes brothers resist few opportunities to contrast aristocratic snobs with suffering social inferiors or luxurious living conditions with the poverty and squalor that surround the endangered streetwalkers, threatened with gleaming knife blades or other intimidation at every intersection.

But all of this doesn't necessarily substitute for dramatic coherence and immediacy. So many transitions and characters remain confusing that I had the impression that one victim had come back from the dead to get slashed and disemboweled a second time.

It suits the convenience of the plot to imagine the victims as cronies, a quintet of prostitutes who tend to hang out and even room together, partly out of protective impulses that are never equal to the filmmakers' need to get them separated and vulnerable to the next slaughter. A certain ridiculous undercurrent builds up as a result.

Heather Graham, given the name of the youngest of the authentic victims, Mary Kelly, is easily differentiated by a red wig. This is an important clue and source of solace to Mr. Depp's character, for whom solace is almost as elusive as a successful investigation.

Of course, he's being unfairly obstructed at every turn. Ian Richardson radiates sheer hostility as Sir Charles Warren, the police commissioner. Ian Holm cannot be trusted as royal physician William Gull. A Masonic cabal has so many physicians in its clutches that the movie might as well be subtitled, "The Doctors' Plot."

I was a little disappointed that the Duke of Clarence angle could not produce a moment in which someone, maybe Mr. Depp, would exclaim, "False, fleeting, perjured Clarence." Perhaps the next Ripper aficionado can correct that oversight.

The Hughes brothers have their minds elsewhere, making sure that twilight skies over London look bloodstained and that every knife blade reflects light with adequate dazzle.


*1/2

TITLE: "From Hell"

RATING: R ("Strong violence/gore, sensuality, language and drug content," according to the MPAA)

CREDITS: Directed by Allen and Albert Hughes. Screenplay by Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias, based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. Cinematography by Peter Deming

RUNNING TIME: 122 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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