Musings on Jack the Ripper

I recently watched the movie From Hell, based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore (which I have, embarrassingly, not read. I know, I know). It was fascinating and disappointing in equal measures, though overall I’m pleased to say I liked it; it had a good pace, interesting characters, and an incredible sense of period and setting. What it did not have was consistency, either with itself or with established Ripper lore, and while the latter is unfortunate but forgivable, the former is heartbreaking. It could have been so good! I will assume, because I love Alan Moore’s work, that the problems I’m about to enumerate were introduced not in the original but in the transition to film; I really need to read that novel.

Jack the Ripper is not history’s first serial killer–not by a long shot–but he is the first properly-documented one and certainly the most famous, by almost any metric you choose to use. His case has all the hallmarks of the classic serial killer template, from the stalking of a specific victim profile to the ritualization of the kill to the attention-seeking letters sent to the press and police. Most serial killers have only one or two of the traits we associate with the template, but Jack the Ripper had them all–indeed, he’s probably the reason the template bears such strong associations in the first place. The key to his story’s enduring fascination is that his crimes were never solved, leading us to more than a century of theories and research and armchair investigators all carefully crafting their own solutions to a lurid and unsolvable puzzle. In the past three decades alone we’ve seen stories and books and movies by the dozens–probably by the hundreds–each giving their own version of who Jack was and why he did what he did; many of them are supernatural, involving everything from witchcraft to time travel to aliens, and incorporating just about every conceivable historical figure, real or fictional, who could possibly have been involved. I once read a book where Sherlock Holmes investigated the Ripper killings, questioning no less than Bram Stoker and George Bernard Shaw on his way to discovering that it was in fact Cthulhu, or one of his be-tentacled minions, who’d done it.

From Hell (and I warn you fair and square that this sentence spoils the entire plot) posits that the prostitutes were murdered not by a psychopathic killer but by a Masonic conspiracy dedicated to preserving the secret of Prince Edward’s illegitimate heir. It seems that Edward, desiring a simple life away from court, wooed and wed a prostitute named Ann, and with her fathered a child rightwise born queen of England. Whether or not this secret could actually destroy the British Empire is beside the point (no one in the movie ever believes anything the prostitutes say, on any subject, so I doubt that “my friend the whore is married to the prince of England” would be taken very seriously). There’s also the issue of why the child herself is left alive, if she’s so fiendishly dangerous. Never mind all that: the point is that the prostitutes are witnesses, and must be killed, and the killings must be so sensational that everyone focuses on them and not on the dark secrets behind them. I suggest that a few quiet stabbings in a back alley would have been a much simpler way to not attract attention, but I possess merely a “middle-class intellect,” as one of the Masons says, so what do I know?

The really disappointing thing about this story, for me, is that it takes all of the wonderfully horrible details of the Ripper murders and throws them out the window: the psychological investigation leads to nothing; the letters to the press, so well-documented that they continue to fascinate people 130 years later, are discarded with two lines of dialogue about how they’re merely fakes designed to mislead the investigation; the body parts and prophetic promises mailed to the police are unexplored and ultimately meaningless. In other words, the actual details of the actual murders–ostensibly the reason one would choose to make a movie about Jack the Ripper–are ignored and replaced with a fairly standard government conspiracy, which would have been admittedly sensational at the time but is pretty much just par for the course in modern politics.

Here’s what really bugged me, though, and again I stress that for all I know the novel presented this much more effectively: at the last minute, or rather in the last fifteen minutes, the movie laughs and falls over and tries to have it both ways, claiming that the Masonic doctor assigned to carry out the killings was in fact a deranged lunatic, possibly schizophrenic, who went far overboard on the crimes because he hated whores and/or he wanted revenge and/or he thought God was telling him to do it. And/or a whole mess of other things; the movie doesn’t really care enough to tell us. That the doctor is played by Ian Holm, and that this final material is presented in a moving, intriguing way, only make it more depressing that the idea was so poorly worked in to the rest of the script. Why take all that time to prove it was only a conspiracy if you’re just going to come back and prove it was a loose cannon psychopath? If the killer is so profoundly interesting, why wait until the movie’s over to show him doing anything cool? The transition from one story to the other was so poorly integrated that it felt less like a twist than like an alternate ending on the DVD. Don’t take this to mean that I disliked the ending; in fact I would rather have watched a movie that matched this ending than to have seen an ending that matched this movie. Like I said before: it could have been so good if they’d done it right.

The movie itself, bizarre Ripper investigation aside, is enjoyably Victorian and extremely well performed. Heather Graham as Mary Kelly was surprisingly good in the role, with powerful acting and even a pretty solid English accent. Where did this performance come from, and why doesn’t she do it more often? When I heard she was in a movie opposite Johnny Depp, Robbie Coltrane, and Ian Holm, I feared the worst and braced myself for a Batman Begins-style fiasco, where the perfectly acceptable actress Katie Holmes gets lost in the shadows of much stronger actors, and comes off looking terrible in comparison. That is not the case here. Graham is always believable, always interesting, and if the movie finds silly excuses to show her cleavage at every opportunity, well, I can forgive them. If her role had been more active it would have been a landmark performance for her, but in the category of “strong-willed streetwalker tries to not get murdered,” she does a great job.

Similarly interesting is Johnny Depp, who does the best he can (which is considerably good) with a ridiculously under-developed character. He plays a Holmes-ish policeman with an opium addiction and a propensity for psychic visions, which sounds like the coolest character ever, but in practice he’s just the guy who walks around while the movie parcels out clues and atmosphere. His addictions never hamper his investigation and his visions never help it, and his insights are clever without ever being brilliant. I suppose my own preconceptions failed me here–I wanted either The Alienist or CSI: Whitechapel, with solid principles of psychology and investigation used to track one of history’s most fascinating killers. Instead I got a passable story where gritty Victorians uncover a salacious royal conspiracy. It was good, and I liked it, but it could have been so much more.

3 Responses to “Musings on Jack the Ripper”

  1. Truman says:

    I thought Katie Holmes did an excellent job compared to Maggie Gyllenhall…She was one of the many things that turned me off of the Dark Knight. (still think its an ok movie but could have been SOOO much better)

  2. Darin Calhoun says:

    I thought the same thing about “From Hell”, it was ok, but it could have been more. I enjoyed Johnny Dep, but I felt his character was too much like Holmes, and needed more development beyond his addiction and semi-genius.

  3. L A Billingham says:

    I feel that the movie made a mockery of the graphic novel and Johnny Depp put in his usual over-the-top prince of clowns performance. It gave all the anti-ripperologists another nail to bash into the coffin of the genuinly interested readers and watchers of anything Jack the Ripper. Really disappointed me.

    Looking forward to the book. Hope this finds you well.

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