Hell on Earth
Pundits often like to demonstrate how bad things are now by telling us how wonderful things were in the good old days. You know, when everyone stayed married, children respected their parents, and we were all god-fearing folk. Well, guess what? That time never existed and the Hughes brothers’ new film, From Hell, reveals the falsity of any nostalgic yearnings for the good old days. It turns out that our modern age doesn’t have the lock on media hype, poverty, despair, prostitution, drug addiction, and serial killing. All of these problems existed in 19th-century London.
In 1888, in the notorious slum of Whitechapel in London’s East End, Jack the Ripper brutally murdered five prostitutes. He managed to elude police while committing his murders in public, leaving his victims in plain sight where they were sure to be discovered and then taunting the police with letters to the press and packages bearing the victims’ body parts. He signed one of his letters, “From Hell,” and it is from this vantage point that Albert and Allen Hughes ask us to relive the story of those five women and the detective who tried to stop the killings.
Hell for these women is a life on the streets, selling their bodies, barely able to sustain the most hardscrabble existence. Their perspective is made clear in the opening shot of London, looming up out of the darkness before the camera swoops down into the city’s slum to follow the prostitute Mary Kelly (Heather Graham) as she makes her way through the streets of Whitechapel at night. The film will continue to show ghetto life, its violence, poverty, and drugs, all of which are ongoing themes in the Hughes brothers’ work, for instance, Menace II Society.
What’s more, in a move I highly respect, the Hugheses make sure the viewers get to know the victims. They are women with families, trying to earn enough to live in the meanest slums, regularly shaken down by a cruel street gang and harassed by the police and so-called reformers. We learn their names (which are the victims’ actual names), and we see how they try to work together and support each other as best they can. The film avoids the “hooker with a heart of gold” portrayal of Mary. Unlike the standard Hollywood prostitute such as Jamie Lee Curtis in Changing Places or Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, who manage to stay beautiful and sweet on the streets, Graham’s Kelly is angry, suspicious, and very open about how she earns her living. She is struggling to survive, barely able to hold it together. If her longings for her youth and lost innocence (indicated by her repeated gazing at her childhood portrait) seem a bit heavy-handed, we are at least encouraged to think of her as person, someone with a family and a past, someone who wants to escape the hell her life has become. I wasn’t sure that Graham was up to the role, but she pulls off Kelly’s anger, fear, and determination. Even the Irish accent seems well done.
The primary champion for the prostitutes is Inspector Fred Abberline (Johhny Depp), who refuses to accept the idea that the women aren’t worth saving because they are “fallen.” Perhaps he feels connected to them because of his own working-class background, indicated by his own Cockney accent. Or perhaps because, like the victims, he is living in a personal hell, in his case caused by opium addiction and grief over his dead wife. Don’t worry that Depp’s selection for the role of Abberline makes this movie a rehash of Sleepy Hollow , in which Depp plays another 18th-century detective. These films are nothing alike and neither are their protagonists. Where Ichabod Crane was a skittish man, terrified of the crime he was solving, Abberline takes charge of his investigation, requesting additional resources, outmaneuvering his uncooperative superior, Sir Charles Warren (Ian Richardson), and inspiring loyalty among his co-workers. He even keeps his cool when viewing the bodies, an act few around him can replicate.
And it is difficult to remain level-headed. The media turn the case into the first tabloid frenzy and Abberline’s bosses want him to keep things quiet. Worst of all is the level of violence the murderer inflicts on the women: even seasoned policemen are unglued by the carnage. The production team went to great lengths to depict accurately the carnage the killer inflicted on his victims. There is an intense, graphic realism about the killings, including clear depictions of how the Ripper slashed his victims’ throats and then their bodies, often to remove internal organs. As Abberline’s Sergeant Peter Godley (Robbie Coltrane) puts it, “He removed her livelihood as a keepsake.” This isn’t gratuitous violence, as each scene is carefully recreated based on coroners’ reports and crime photos, but it is profoundly disturbing. Clear sound effects conveying the slashing add to the terror. The violent frenzy of the killings certainly reveals the killer’s madness.
The factual details of the murders are paralleled by the care taken with the realistic depictions of material life of late 19th-century London. The production crew used photographs of the Whitechapel area taken in 1888 and built the set as an exact replica of the location. Historical accuracy is combined with dark and moody lighting, a focus on scenes at night and on dark interiors such as the morgue. Eerie nighttime skies and blood-red clouds are added to create an atmosphere charged with danger, uncertainty and, yes, madness.
This version of Jack the Ripper’s story has been squeezed and nipped to provide a plausible killer, but it refuses to honor every aspect of Hollywood film conventions, in particular the “happy ending.” But this is one of the aspects of the Hugheses’ version that I like. Hollywood films often suggest that heroes can solve the crime, punish the perp, and get the girl and the promotion, but that is the easy and falsely reassuring way out for the viewer. Though the Hughes brothers’ film does provide an identity for the killer (one that has already been rejected by some Ripperologists), it also refuses to wrap up all the characters’ loose ends neatly.
Twentieth Century Fox is positioning this as a Halloween fright film with its release in mid-October, the season for teenage slasher movies, but this decision sells From Hell short. It is far more complex and sophisticated than a hack-for-the-fun-of-it kind of film. It is a murder mystery, and also the story of a disturbed man on the trail of a madman—an exploration of the minds of killer and the man sent to stop him. It is a film that doesn’t use its female victims as objects to be murdered and forgotten. Perhaps most importantly, it compels us to look at poverty, vast disparities in wealth and position, abuses of power, and the people who live in a manmade hell, to remind us that the victims of violence are not nameless.