From Hell is an uneven and overlong mystery film that works almost solely because of its atmosphere building. It does such a good job at reinventing 1880’s London that I didn’t often feel bored, even though there isn’t a lot to take in when it comes to the plot. It’s far more simple than you might think considering at one point you’ll think that every character is a suspect in the murder spree that’s going on, but not a whole lot happens and if it wasn’t for the visuals, I probably wouldn’t have had a good time.
The film begins by following the daily routine of a group of prostitutes in London in the year 1888. The main one is Mary (Heather Graham), because she gets the most camera time and will eventually serve as the love interest. They’re harassed by their “protectors,” and live each day in misery, poverty, and believe that things can’t possibly sink any lower. That is, until one of them is murdered. Then things get serious enough to bring in a detective, a man named Frederick Abberline (Johnny Depp). Another murder, and we have a serial killer on our hands: Jack the Ripper is the man we are looking for.
For those unaware — somehow — Jack the Ripper was real and killed a whole bunch of people over the course of a relatively small period of time. The killer was never caught, and while it’s possible that more than one person was behind the murders, the name “Jack the Ripper” was given to whoever was behind them, regardless of who and how many people there were. From Hell is a fictionalized account of a detective’s attempt to catch the killer(s), and is based on a graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell.
Or, at least, that’s what it wants to be. What it is really is a film that has its detective go from place to place, attempting to solve clues, and only at the very end does he actually announce that he wants to put a stop to Jack. He seems far more interested in just having work than making a difference, and has no trouble indulging in opium and drink late at night, completely knocking himself out. He sees visions here which he claims will help him solve the crime, but really, that seemed to me like a ruse.
Mostly, we just watch Abberline go from place to place, occasionally having prophetic, drug-induced visions. The person we suspect to be the killer changes from scene to scene, and about the only part of the plot that has any energy is given to the movie by the audience as we try to guess exactly who is killing all of the prostitutes. You get no prizes for guessing who it is, and you very well might not be surprised, as the killer isn’t terribly shocking.
There’s also a romantic subplot that likely should have been excluded as it slows things down and the two actors (Depp and Graham) don’t have any chemistry together. You would have to change a few plot-related things around if you remove it, but you’d tidy up so much of the film and possibly give Abberline actual motivation that the improvements would be well worth the work. Sure, you might not stay true to the graphic novel, but the film diverges quite a bit from its source anyway, so it wouldn’t really matter.
Admittedly, I did like looking at all of the visuals of the film. It’s shot and crafted with style, and there is never a dull moment when talking about what you’re looking at. Even the murders, as grizzly and bleak as they are, are quite pretty, too, assuming you aren’t bothered by fairly graphic violence. You don’t see a lot of the murders — though you do see a lot of dead bodies — but what you do see isn’t pleasant.
London is wonderfully recreated, or at least, I assume it is. Whether this is how the poor districts of London looked like in 1888 or not, I believed that this is where we were. We get transported to another place and time, and I wanted to spend a while there. It’s fun just to take in the scenery, even if not a whole lot is done with the somewhat unique location. This same story could take place pretty much anywhere and at any time, and not much would change. The only reason it’s at this time and place is to tie into Jack the Ripper, in hopes of getting more audience members to watch because of the connection to the real life killer.
And if you are watching this movie because it features Jack the Ripper, and you want to learn more about the case, you’re watching the wrong movie. While many of the names are the same as real life people, the film is not at all historically accurate. It’s based off a graphic novel, after all. Sure, you can see where the filmmakers got their information and how some of the events could have happened, but don’t go into From Hell looking for Jack the Ripper insights.
From Hell builds a strong atmosphere and is visually stunning, but without a strong plot or characters, it all goes for naught. It’s style without substance, I suppose, and while it had all the tools to be captivating, it fails frequently because its lead character doesn’t seem to do much, and because the plot is dull. Don’t hope for insight in the Jack the Ripper case, either, as the film doesn’t even try to be true-to-life. It’s fun for the visuals, and is almost worth watching for those alone, but I can’t wholeheartedly recommend From Hell.