Will the true identity of Jack the Ripper ever be solved? Doubtful. For all we know, history has already accurately revealed it and everyone either missed it altogether or the truth is so unbearable it will forever remain concealed from the world. For all we know, reigning monarch in late 1800's Britain Queen Victoria could've posed as a man and gored the five prostitutes in the hapless Whitechapel region of London. Or not.
Of course, history buffs studying this spectacularly high-profile unsolved mystery, or "Ripperologists," have come up with so many wildly varied suspects that The Elephant Man has been blamed, as has Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland.
From Hell, the 2001 movie directed by the Hughes Brothers, who are best known for the intense ghetto dramas Menace II Society and Dead Presidents, chose to tackle Jack the Ripper because they related to the impoverished lower class Whitechapel area, where a slum is a slum is a slum, no matter what century. The Whitechapel portrayed in the movie, which is based on the graphic novel by Watchmen, Swamp Thing, Batman and Superman writer Alan Moore, is a perilous step into London's venereal underbelly, one where prostitutes working the streets had to fear for their lives not just from their johns, but also the early form of pimps, all abusive riff raff who kicked the snot out of these ladies of the night after ejaculating in their faces.
Far worse their fate in the Whitechapel of 1888 that a gory murderer stalks them. From Hell, starring the can-do-anything Johnny Depp as Inspector Frederick George Abberline and a red-headed Heather Graham as Mary Kelly (loosely based on Maria Kelly, the fifth and final Ripper murder victim) on the front is a viscerally terrifying film. It is also a deep and complex plot that serves up what the Hughes Brothers attest is the prevailing whodunit theory of the day. Some historians generally agree that Jack the Ripper was quite possibly William Withey Gull, a prominent surgeon of the day and fellow of the Royal Society to Queen Victoria.
History suggests (as does From Hell) that the prostitutes murdered in Whitechapel were alleged witnesses to an illegitimate child born to royalty. In other words, the ghastly goring and dismemberment of these prostitutes could highly be an elaborate cover-up between the throne and the underground Freemason society. That's the stance From Hell takes, thrusting us into the secretive Freemason microcosm and suggesting that Gull was a rogue member believing himself to be ordained by the grand creator to kill, and kill in surgically methodic fashion that involves the removal of female genitalia and breasts, and disembowelment so precise the entrails are slung overtop the shoulder to represent the triangular symbol of the Freemasons.
This is where From Hell treads the fine line, between murder by insanity and murder by convenience. Inarguably the real Jack the Ripper had gross anatomical knowledge; there was no random haphazard psychosexual circumstances involved in these killings. The prostitutes were reported to have known each other, if not being outright friends as the film purports, and their deaths, save for one that was merely throat-slit, were systematic and over-the-top. In the case of Maria Kelly, her body was so brutally dismembered even her face was barely recognizable. The murders can be considered ritualistic as the fictitious version of Gull leads us to believe, or it could be the quite fathomable explanation that they were direct hits ordered by Queen Victoria in order to keep the sanctity of the monarchy intact by making the murders so outrageous it would take the focus away from the throne.
The fact is there are very little facts to prove who Jack the Ripper really was. Perhaps the case existed to give insight into the serial killer mind as it was the first of its kind, one where methodical measures fingerpointed the same culprit. Of course, for all we know, there could've been one or two Jacks mimicking each other, targeting working women in the same neighborhood. Was he (or they) thrill seekers, deity appeasers or skillful hitmen for the government?
From Hell has been criticized for the way Johnny Depp's role of Inspector Abberline is portrayed as a psychic who uses an early form of LSD with absinthe to heighten his acute ESP, which has allowed him to solve many cases in east end London. The true Abberline is not said to have any paranormal capacities nor was he accused (historically-speaking, anyway) of being a drug habitue. The other thing is that From Hell Hollywood-izes the charcter of Maria Kelly with Heather Graham playing her as Mary Kelly, the central figure of the prostitute clan who are dispatched by Jack the Ripper. This Kelly survives the ordeal as the film utilizes an outsider French girl to take Kelly's place on the gory bed of death. Whether or not Maria Kelly and Inspector Abberline really had a thing going on in 1888 remains disproven, but it serves as a shaky romance for From Hell that makes the story more convenient, considering the complexity of its topic.
What the Hughes Brothers do right is accurately recreating the old Whitechapel neighborhood in their makeshift town filmed in Prague, meticulously going by archive photos of the day. It has an authentic feel about it, plus it has reknowned character actor Robbie Coltrane, best known to the world these days as Hagrid from the Harry Potter films. From Hell is stylish, brutal and very well acted. Whether you buy into the subtle conspiracy theory or not, at least the film is compelling pseudo history, and that nasty silvery swishing noise when Jack the Ripper or Gull's carriage drops its footstep is unnerving, to be sure.
If nothing else, From Hell has brought forth a thousand new theories about the Ripper case, God help us...