Film Torments: From Hell (2001)
ADAPTATIONS of comic book juggernaut and psychoshaman Alan Moore’s work have a rather sketchy track record. There’s the decent V for Vendetta, the great Watchmen… and then there’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a film so monumentally awful that it prompted Sean Connery’s retirement. The same Sean Connery who happily did Zardoz and Highlander II: The Quickening. Yeah. This Sean Connery. Now try to imagine a film adaptation of Mssr. Moore that’s even worse. You can’t? Well, the Hughes Brothers are happy to oblige your blissful ignorance by squatting over your chest and curling out a great big chocolate dragon that they like to call From Hell. I prefer to call it Hell.
From Hell is From Hell in name only. Characters share names from Moore’s work – widely noted for its meticulous research, time-hopping narrative and philosophical potency – but little else. Jack the Ripper is involved in some small aspect but his role, along with its significance in the grander scheme of the plot, is drastically reduced in favour of Johnny Depp playing every Johnny Depp of the last decade and a half, wonky English accent and all. The Freemasons and Queen Victoria, cornerstones of the original work, are relegated to cameos. What Moore gives us is a dimension-spanning, “apocalyptic summary of the entire Victorian age”; what the Hughes give us is another endlessly mundane period whodunit without tension, guile or wit.
Taking the vaguest semblance of a premise from the source, the Hughes’ From Hell gives us psychic opium addict/professional tailcoat wearer/mincing dandy/Johnny Depp’s Detective Frederick Abberline, a man who resembles his source material counterpart (and the real-life Abberline) in name only. Welcome to a pattern. We follow Abberline through several cobbled Victorian streets on the hunt for Jack the Ripper; along the way, he encounters Ian Holm’s demon eyes, Robbie Coltrane’s enemas and Heather Graham’s cleavage, which he promptly falls in love with.
Suffice it to say that Depp’s Abberline is terrible. He wanders around 1888 London looking either baffled or nonplussed with wispy beard in tow, dressed like he’s turned up to his Jack Sparrow audition two centuries later than planned. The clairvoyant opium sequences – substituted in as replacements for Robert Lees’ ‘visions’ in the comic – are stilted attempts to inject some sense of mystery into a film that never needed it in the first place. Depp stumbles through a half-baked script, wholly at odds with everything around him. His presence is so jarring I half-expected him to start swigging rum and singing pirate shanties. It goes without saying that he can do so much better at this late stage but, really, he can do so much better.
The prostitute victims fare better than most in the film, each receiving just enough development and giving enough of a performance to merit the audience caring. Lesley Sharp in particular is, reliably, one of the highlights of the film whenever I wasn’t snoring. Graham, meanwhile, often so good and yet so upsettingly cast in crap, is relegated to pouting and looking concerned with her bosom heaving in every shot. It’s been a long time since Roller Girl, Heather. Please do something good again.
Lest we forget the Ripper, of course. Never mind the fact that Dr. Gull is revealed as the Ripper in the second chapter of the comic, it’s painfully obvious that it’s Ian Holm, regardless of prior knowledge. We know he’s the villain because there are no other suspects. We know he’s the villain because he shows up in the shadows saying things in a very silly gutter growl. We apparently have to be reminded he’s the villain because his eyes go all black and coal-like.
This might have worked in a Robert Rodriguez movie, where stylistic decisions like this are commonplace, but not here when we’re desperately trying to take things so bloody crawling seriously. While Holm does the best he can with limited material – the speech he gives to Depp and later to the Masons is particularly effective, primarily because it’s word-for-word from the comic – he can only do so much with the plodding ennui within.
And, boy, does it plod. It got to the stage where I resorted to actually palming through the collected edition of the comic so I wouldn’t have to suffer through Johnny Depp libertining the fuck out of the no-nonsense, morally upstanding Abberline. Under normal circumstances I would pass this egregious ‘adaptation’ off as another lame, unfulfilling shill of an artist’s original work and leave it there, but when the work in question is as vital as Moore’s From Hell; when the adaptation is as utterly off-kilter with the themes of the source as it is, the buck must stop.
Beyond sheer marketability, there is no reason for an adaptation of From Hell to morph into a by-the-numbers police procedural detective drama with a woefully underdeveloped love plot, hackneyed writing and pedestrian direction. It’s one of the worst adaptations of a source I’ve seen and a tedious, fist-clenching bore regardless.