The golden age of detective fiction is often said to have occurred during the 1930s, a time when the genre surged in popularity and saw repeated bestsellers from prolific authors like Agatha Christie, a writer who to this day remains virtually synonymous with detective fiction as a whole. However, if the depression era’s need for escapism and a restoration of the principles of law and order paved the way for detective fiction’s success in the 1930s, then the Hughes brothers’ adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel From Hell makes a compelling case suggesting that humanity’s increasing fascination with detective stories can be constructively traced back to the Victorian era.
In fact, the most immediately apparent and aesthetically pleasing aspect of the Hughes brothers’ cinematic representation of Moore’s graphic novel (no doubt helped by the fact that Moore was actually involved in this adaptation of his work: he is listed as having co-written the film’s script) is the gothic rendering of Victorian London’s infamous East end, specifically the Whitechapel district in which the majority of the film’s action takes place. Although possibly at the expense of claims to historical accuracy, the film goes to great lengths to construct Whitechapel as a region which highlights the obscene underbelly of the Victorian age: specifically, Victorian society’s displacement of crime and all vice to particular urban spaces. The film’s focus on the prostitution trade of the Whitechapel district is especially fitting for this purpose, as it further exposes the inherent hypocrisy of the Victorian upper class, who make public claims to moral superiority while indulging privately in corrupt behaviour, something which the Victorian society depicted in From Hell fully sanctions so long as such activities do not spill out from the Whitechapel district where they are expected to remain contained.
Continuing with the subject of urban geography, there are a number of stunning moments in the film where a sign takes on an entirely different connotation in one area of London compared with another. In Whitechapel, passing carriages and even a cluster of grapes are regarded suspiciously; the latter even comes in to play as a clue which allows the protagonist, Inspector Abberline (played by Johnny Depp), to conclude that the killer is a wealthy man who uses the luxurious fruit as a means of seducing his unsuspecting victims. Symbolically the grapes are a nice touch to the film, an enduring trace of the upper class’ trespasses in the Whitechapel area.
At this point I must permit myself to speak briefly about the film’s resolution, which attempts a fictitious imagining of the identity of the killer known as Jack the Ripper. Assuming that the film concludes the same way as the graphic novel, it is clear that Moore is no mere dabbler in Victorian lore. The film’s conclusion is both satisfying and very much to the point. The public atrocities committed by the Ripper are aimed at concealing a greater private shame, and while the Ripper’s victims appear to be random prostitutes, they are in fact aimed at several women who are privy to knowledge that the upper class interests the Ripper represents wish to conceal. Although the brutality of the crimes are attributed to the Ripper’s (played by Ian Holm) sinister nature, the notion that the crimes themselves are intended to suppress a personal scandal (which were all too prevalent during the Victorian era) is a fitting one which upholds the Ripper myth while simultaneously attempting to attach a sense of order to the otherwise chaotic and inexplicable serial murders. Holm’s portrayal of the Ripper recalls another Victorian character, specifically that of Doctor Henry Jekyll, whose irreducible “good” and “evil” personalities are recalled by Holm’s performance.
Ultimately the only fault I could lay on From Hell is the conspicuous absence of the London poor, who are always in the periphery but who one would think ought to be featured more prominently in any film attempting a delineation of the East end. However, perhaps this decision was a conscious one, as the poor’s lack of participation in events occurring in their own geographic space further highlights the Victorian upper class’ role in determining and overseeing East end life. Furthermore, I would add that the scenes in the mental hospital (if one can call it that) go a long way to make up for the absence of the lower classes throughout the rest of the film.
So in conclusion what we have here is a story that, despite being conceptualized nearly 100 years after the Victorian era (Moore’s graphic novel having been published in serial format between 1991 and 1996), is nothing shy of a classic Victorian story in both its concept and its execution. Though one might easily dwell at length about the film’s treatment of prostitution and other Victorian themes, the film’s handling of urban geography alone merits attention for anyone interested in the Victorian era.
Rating: 4 stars
Victorian Cool factor: 9/10