I think it would be fair to say that cinema is to Alan Moore what the wood chipper was to Steve Buscemi in Fargo. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, V for Vendetta, and particularly Watchmen have shown that you can produce a work from the same components, and yet misses the point of the novels entirely. However, in From Hell, we see that you can take the finest steak, and, even when it’s minced up, produce a perfectly serviceable hamburger.
There is an awful lot more to From Hell than Moore would give it credit for, including a long look at the classism at the heart of the society it’s presenting. Ultimately, the film would suggest that the Ripper murders were an almost inevitable consequence of the hierarchy inherent in Victorian-era Britain, and challenges the Queen herself in a way not often seen in cinema. Mary gazes at a picture of Victoria and, rather than launching into a patriotic speech, declares that she has “cold eyes”. This is a film very critical of the class system, which, in many ways, is the real villain of the piece.
Having the victims know each other, although probably historically inaccurate, is a masterstroke, as it places them in direct opposition to the Masonic order that’s responsible for their death. We see what makes them the perfect victims – they are poor, they are female, one is French, two are gay – and so to the powerful male upper-class, their lives are less significant than the reputation of the monarchy. Chillingly, this film suggests that such forces are irresistible, and we can only look on helplessly as the Ripper proceeds to his final victim, and though he may be punished, the systems that created him remain intact. In many ways, it’s a refreshingly honest alternative to the highly romanticised versions of Victorian London seen in, for example, Sherlock Holmes.
This isn’t to say that Conan Doyle’s creation has had no influence on the work, who is so often associated with these genuine crimes. Inspector Abberline borrows heavily, from his addiction to narcotics to his slightly bumbling sidekick (played with the professionalism one would expect from Robbie Coltrane). Depp’s casting is initially jarring, as his accent doesn’t suit his well-known persona, and despite a perfectly fine performance, he never quite fits in with a cast of so many British actors. The same is true with Heather Graham’s character, though to a lesser extent.
Without doubt, the best performance in the movie is Ian Holm’s. Time and again, from Alien to one of the most memorable moments in The Fellowship of the Ring, he has shown that he can turn on a sixpence like no-one else, and go from being utterly benevolent to the devil incarnate in a heartbeat. Holm’s eyes are the key. At his most demonic, they seem to be entirely black, like Quint’s description of the shark’s eyes in Jaws. His calmness, even when performing some of the most unspeakable acts humanity has seen, is deeply unsettling, and contrast startlingly to the horror of the scenes.
The violence is also well-handled, as it’s presented in a realistically unpleasant way, but not dwelt upon so as to eroticise it, as it could so easily have done. For the most part, our main indication of the viciousness of the wounds comes from reactions, which, aside from preventing an NC-17 rating in the USA, is the only way to tastefully convey the extent of things. The direction and editing, too, are stylish, though on occasional they can dip into the sensational (the glinting and slashing blade in the dark being the obvious example there). However, every time, the tone of disgust from the police afterwards prevents it from becoming too much like a Halloween/Friday the 13th-style slasher flick. From this film, we are left in no doubt as to the brutality of the Ripper murders.
Sadly, however, the film’s biggest flaw is in its biggest deviation away from the source material. Moore’s graphic novel lays out early on who the Ripper is (at least, for the purposes of the story), and then proceeds to try to understand what would drive someone to commit these acts, rather than simply playing out as a whodunit. In fact, this format plays out considerably worse on screen than it would have done in print, as the printed word doesn’t betray someone’s voice. In order to conceal the Ripper’s identity, Holm must mumble and attempt to disguise his, despite the fact that he is talking to someone who knows his identity. This turns the Ripper from a genuine serial killer to a comic-book villain (alright, it’s based on a comic-book, but Jack the Ripper shouldn’t be played like Dr Doom), and this only belittles the murders themselves. Add to this the fact that Holm is instantly recognisable anyway, which of course undermines the whodunit premise completely and renders the charade even more ridiculous, and these scenes detract from a great deal of good work elsewhere in the film.
So it’s not flawless, and you can never pack as much in to two hours of film as you can get into 600 pages of a graphic novel, but there is still a lot to take from the film. From its title and a lot of its marketing, From Hell may sound like a simple horror film set in Victorian London, but it goes much deeper politically than an average Hammer Horror. This is a film with a point, and even if that point is somewhat more muddied than its source, it is nonetheless there.