Much has been made of the "surprise" that Albert and Allen Hughes, two African-American filmmakers who made the urban crime dramas Menace II Society and Dead Presidents, would helm a film set in Victorian London, working with an all-white cast. As if they were only allowed to make "black" films! Some critics tried to justify it by saying the Hugheses showed us that Jack the Ripper's Whitechapel stomping grounds – filled with prostitutes, gangs, pimps and drugs – was in its own way "The Hood". Still an offensive sentiment. Why not just agree that their style, graphic in every sense of the word, was simply suited to this claustrophobic, hallucinogenic thriller?
That said, the whole allure of the real Jack the Ripper case is, for me, the enduring mystery surrounding it. We will never know who he – history's first known serial killer – was, why he started killing, or why he stopped. The downfall of From Hell is that it takes great pains to explain it, with a solution inclusive of every single theory ever concocted: he didn't act alone, he was a wealthy man, he had surgical training, he was a pillar of society, he had some connection to Queen Victoria's royal court, there was a government coverup, a cult was involved, and so forth. I was let down by the story's insistence on wrapping up all the loose ends within two hours. I would have preferred if the opium-addicted detective put on the Ripper's trail (a typically fine performance by Johnny Depp) never found the answer to this case, and went mad trying. But then, it wouldn't have been bankrolled by a major Hollywood studio.
From Hell has got a great atmosphere – though The Hugheses' version of East London is not quite as grimy as it could've been – and a very welcome supporting cast including Ian Holm, Robbie Coltrane, and Katrin Cartlidge. But not much else. Heather Graham, for her part, settles into her role eventually, but her English accent is shaky (they explain that she was "born in Ireland"), and really, any actress could have played her role just as well. The story stays fairly close to the facts (such as we know them) but takes great liberties in suggesting that the five prostitutes murdered by Jack the Ripper were best friends. What's the point in adding silly details like that?
A note to the squeamish: the film isn't as bloody or as scary as the ads make it appear to be. The gore is limited to brief but effective flash frames, and nothing pops out at you.