by Brody Rossiter
I really don’t like Johnny Depp films, and when I say I don’t like them, what I actually mean is that I believe that Depp is most overrated, artistically underachieving actor of his generation, who, often alongside Tim Burton, has irreversibly damaged numerous franchises. Franchises that, placed in the hands of a different director and lead actor, could have been contemporary masterpieces (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland, Sleepy Hollow).
While Depp is undoubtedly a pop-culture icon, his performances are repeatedly unsatisfying, and yet when he steps out from under Burton’s oh so spooky and kooky shadow (the horrors of The Pirates of the Caribbean films notwithstanding) he’s capable of truly connecting with an audience and showing a faint glimmer of his largely untapped acting capabilities – the kind that doesn’t involve countless hours of costume and makeup prior to stepping onto the set. The Hughes Brothers’ adaptation of Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel retelling of Jack the Ripper’s bloodthirsty exploits, is one occasion when Depp proves that less is so much more.
London, 1888, a spate of horrific murders is afflicting the city’s foreboding cobblestone streets. Beneath the faint hue of lamplight, pimps and prostitutes go about their sordid business, while behind closed doors and down darkened flights of stairs, opium dens crackle with the heady smell of narcotics. Threatened, beaten and forced to walk the streets nightly, Mary Kelly (Heather Graham) and her cohort of female companions are faced with a new terrifying threat. their only hope of survival comes in the form of a clairvoyant detective, who’s also an emotionally tortured addict, Fred Abberline (Johnny Depp). Abberline must navigate Whitechapel’s increasingly carved-up criminal underbelly, tracing the gruesome murders all the way from the gutter to Buckingham Palace while facing institutionalised corruption and the threat of mortal injury with every revelatory step he takes.
From Hell is a perpetually menacing and hauntingly evocative portrait of Victorian London that balances realism with Moore’s potent comic flourishes on the edge of a razor-sharp scalpel. Depp’s performance is involving and emotive. He slides in and out of hallucinogenic trips, romantic yearnings, and suspenseful investigative episodes as the dedicated and unconventional Abberline. The picture’s cast has undeniable strength in numbers and is made all the more authentic by a largely British and classically trained crew of supporting actors.
Loyal to its source material – both the graphic novel and gruesome spirit of Jack the Ripper’s vile legacy – From Hell is an unflinching and wonderfully assembled picture that resonates on every level, especially in the case of Depp’s performance. While I’m not the biggest fan of Depp (obviously), From Hell exhibits that if he had stepped away from Burton and his various other eccentric outings, the actor may well be remembered for his captivating leading roles as opposed to his Keith Richards impression.