Saturday, March 29, 2014

From Hell


I had a very unnerving day.  I returned home from a quick trip to the Beverly Center to find that Jerry, my maid, had managed to drop the living room drapes into the ornamental fountain in the middle of the circular drive; and I have company coming. What she was doing with them out there in the first place I did not ask.  There are questions that I just don't want the answer to.  Several milligrams of Xanax and a pitcher of Mai-Tais did restore my usual restful demeanor and I was ready to receive the representatives of the American Dairy Council over their new What A Friend We Have In Cheeses campaign.

The initial plan is a series of ads, praising the taste and health benefits of cheese, in which I am to be backed by the choir from Zion AME while I sing great gospel hits such as Holey, Holey, Holey Swiss or The Old Rugged Cheese Croissant. We're to film in a number of places around the USA to take maximum advantage of dairy land scenery, patriotic symbols, and majestic ecclesiastical architecture. As the new Kabuki show is not due to go into rehearsal for several months, I readily gave my assent. The costume sketch, some sort of tatty choir robe with a large orange plastic cheese headpiece, however, will not do. I'm sending it to Jean-Paul Gaultier (he's French - he knows his fromages) to have it redone to my high standards.

Later on in the evening, nurse Lynn and I headed out for a quiet little dinner and a screening of the new Hughes' brothers movie, From Hell, at the local Cineplex. From Hell is the umpteenth screen retelling of the Jack the Ripper story, starring Johnny Depp as police inspector Abberline, the man in charge of the case, and Heather Graham as Mary Kelly, an Irish prostitute. It's based on a celebrated graphic novel (think upscale comic book) by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. The Ripper killings, which occupied the minds of Londoners during the summer of 1888, have long been celebrated in fiction and analyzed in forensics, as they were the first serial killings to capture popular imagination. Over the course of a few weeks, an unknown assailant, who taunted the police and the nascent mass media of the London newspapers in letters signed 'Jack the Ripper', butchered six prostitutes in the Whitechapel district of London's South Bank. The combination of illicit sex, graphic carnage (the murders got more elaborate as they went along), media hype, sudden start and ending of the crime spree, and ultimate failure to solve the crimes led to a modern mythology. Multiple attempts over the years, using the original Victorian police reports and other source documents have attempted to prove that this or the other person was the Ripper - none of the purported solutions has shown much in the way of historical veracity and attempts to implicate the government, the royal family, the military, the police, or the freemasons as complicit in the killings have usually come to naught.

From Hell actually combines two of the more popular Ripper theories in its solution. One involving a threat to the reputations of the Royal Family, and one involving Victorian medicine and freemasonry. The film is historically accurate when it so chooses, especially in the forensic details of the murders themselves, and in the period look. Modern Prague stands in for Victorian London and the oppressive brick nineteenth century architecture, which London itself quite properly got rid of some time ago, lends an air of menace and gloom to the film that helps hold the picture together.

Johnny Depp plays inspector Frederick Abberline, the man assigned to the Ripper murders by the London police force. As depicted here, Abberline is a deeply unhappy man, widowed and losing himself in dreams fueled by opium and absinthe. In his languorous narcotic hallucinations (one of the most hypnotically appealing views of drug use ever committed to celluloid), he has visions of the Ripper case and these visions, plus his own smarts, help him start to unravel the complex conspiracy behind the murders. Together with his trusty assistant, Sergeant Godley (Robbie Coltrane), he heads into the underworld of Whitechapel. There he meets the Irish prostitute Mary Kelly (Heather Graham) whose friends seem to be the Ripper's targets. As the girls are dispatched one by one, Abberline finds himself falling for Kelly and trying to get to the bottom of conflicting motives and cover-ups participated in by the Special Branch, the local hoods, the surgeons of London (represented by the Queen's own physician, Sir Edward Gull (Ian Holm)), and the upper class movers and shakers who belong to the local Masonic lodge.

The Hughes are most interested in this story in terms of its class struggle. They have great fun portraying a rotten, decadent society in which an oligarchy takes care of its own, no matter what it may cost the masses and where the morals of the 'better sort' are worse than those of the hoi polloi. With their background in urban 'hood' films such as Menace II Society, it's easy to see why they were attracted to the subject matter from a thematic point of view. They also have a great visual eye and a sense of restraint when it comes to depicting the violence inherent in the tale. Far less is actually shown than the imagination supposes. They use the camera well in setting mood and use the trappings of Victorian technology as counterpoint - trains become demonic monsters, the steps of a carriage become a descending guillotine blade.

Depp delivers one of his usual quirky performances and, like with Sleepy Hollow appears perfectly at ease in period costume and mannerisms. His Abberline is a wounded soul, doggedly pursuing truth for truth's sake, and ultimately unable to handle the true horrors of a society that could create a Ripper. Heather Graham, on the other hand, seems lost. Her Mary Kelly, spouting a bad cockney accent rather than a Western Irish brogue, pales to insignificance besides the well trained British actresses playing her lambs to the slaughter friends. It's not that she's bad, just that she's dull. She's also been given rich, lustrous auburn locks (they're a plot point), which we're supposed to believe she maintains at the Broad Street pump. Her character, always looking exceedingly well fed and rested, keeps complaining that she has no money and is starving. I kept wanting to ask her why she didn't use her beauty parlor funds as she obviously has a professional shampoo and set four times a week. The supporting cast is predominantly British unknowns and is fine. There are some odd scenes involving Victorian autopsies that seem a bit peculiar as characters, who are supposed to be police surgeons blanch on seeing what would not have been unusual trauma, given the industrial accidents of the time. I think that's a fault of writing rather than performance. Ian Holm, as well, over emotes a bit, especially in his later scenes.

The third act bogs down in a lot of exposition in order to clear up all the plot threads. A simpler solution to the mystery could have done away with some of this but then it wouldn't be as rich. It didn't feel draggy to either nurse Lynn or myself but we noticed some of the younger folk starting to get a little itchy with impatience. I kept trying to catch them out on a major historical error but didn't find any worth complaining about. In general, a competent piece of film making worth seeing for Depp and by those interested in a sociological twist on the Ripper legend.

Tempting grapes. Primitive lobotomy. Naked Duke of Clarence. Red lined opera cape. Syphilitic tremors. Gratuitous John Merrick. Stuffy British matrons. Pulsatile grapes. Absinthe bottle. Arterial blood sprays. Gratuitous lesbian prostitute. Boiled heart. Sinister tribunal. 

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