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The plot centres on the investigations of inspector Abberline (Depp), an opium-smoking seer who has prophetic visions of the forthcoming murders, and his amiable partner Godly (Robbie Coltrane). A close-knit group of Whitechapel prostitutes, containing many familiar Brit-flick faces alongside a slightly insipid Heather Graham, are being picked off one by one by the Ripper. Abberline uses his combination of razor sharp intellect and what Godly calls his 'intuitions' to trace the identity of the killer and demystify the charade of Victorian morality. The precision and ritualistic elements of the murders seem to point away from the usual suspects towards the possibility of an upper class killer, undermining the prejudices of the class system and suggesting collusion at the highest levels. Depp cuts a pleasingly dashing figure in a part reminiscent of the romantic visionary he played in Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, and is supported with marvellous performances from Coltrane, and Ian Holm. Inevitably, in the course of his investigations, romance blossoms between Abberline and Mary Kelly, Graham's Irish unfortunate, providing some of the weaker sections of the film. The sharp plot is at times undermined by poor dialogue and Depp's flawed cockney accent, but we are prepared to forgive the occasional oversight and be swept along by the grim intrigue of it all.
The main trill of the film, however, lies in its impeccable design and hallucinatory visuals. The directors have retained the aesthetic of the comicbook, combining caustic green lighting, blood red skies and the murky back streets of Whitechapel. Abberline's visions are a dizzying trip through the London night, peopled by whores, thugs and rotting corpses. Memorable scenes abound, including a particularly impressive image of Big Ben silhouetted against a poisonous red sunrise. The film clearly opts for style over realism, with London looking like a well-drawn comic book at times. However, this suits the plot, sweeping the historical detail up in a slick and enjoyable whirl.
The action moves along at a good pace, including some stunningly gruesome murder scenes, but perhaps the script tries to be a little too ambitious. You get the feeling that the directors are trying to juggle too many narrative strands, and highlight too many disparate themes. For instance, whereas the evocation of Victorian poverty and Abberline's wild premonitions are carried off with considerable panache, the handling of upper class snobbery and racism is unsubtle to say the least. However, despite the slightly cluttered feel and a sometimes-shaky script, From Hell pulls off a thoroughly enjoyable victory for style over substance, revelling in the neo-Gothic darkness of Jack the Ripper's London.