Murder and Mystery

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Review of 'From Hell', directors Albert and Allen Hughes

The Jack the Ripper story repeatedly attracts the interest of modern artists. Is it the dark and frightening background of Victorian London, or the supposed connections of the murderer to the Freemasons and to the eldest son of Queen Victoria, the Duke of Clarence? Whatever, this is no ordinary murder story, but a symbol of a class riven city and an imperial order in deep crisis.

The murder of several London prostitutes in a short space of time, all in the back alleys and courts of a small area of the East End of London, caused an outcry. The women had their throats cut, and were hideously and ritually disembowelled or mutilated, thus setting the murders apart from the everyday violence of East End life.

The life of prostitutes at this level of society was usually nasty, brutish and short. They were harassed by landlords and local protection racket gangs, and often contracted syphilis. Despite the radiant looks and glossy hair of Heather Graham, who plays the prostitute Mary Kelly in the film, most of her contemporaries--as indeed the film shows - aged quickly and were far from glamorous.

'From Hell' is a powerful film. It accepts the view that the murders were committed as part of a conspiracy hatched by Freemasons to cover up Prince Eddie's secret marriage (in a Catholic church) to a young prostitute who bears his child. I first heard this story in the 1970s, and it has grown more plausible as documentary evidence has emerged. Even if you find the total theory too much to swallow, it looks certain that the murders were committed by someone with a very detailed knowledge of anatomy who was educated and connected to Freemasonry.

Johnny Depp as the working class, opium addicted police inspector Abberline is constantly up against upper class prejudice and collusion. The film is based on the graphic novel of the same name and the sets have a slightly one dimensional feel, portraying a very 'arty' view of 19th century London.

The newly emerging popular press are much in evidence, crowding round the bodies, photographing Abberline at the scene of the crime, and causing an outcry at police failure to catch the killer. The Ripper murders were a major public scandal. They took place in an East End where, that same year, the Bryant & May match girls went on strike just two miles down the road. Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Charles Warren presided over the death of a demonstrator at the hands of police in 1887 in Trafalgar Square. Rich London was fearful of socialism, of unrest in its poorest quarters. The film portrays this unease and sense of social decay, and the hatred of foreigners--especially the immigrant Jews who were so much a part of the East End. It shows, through the brutal treatment of some of the poorest women, why this area exploded in the greatest upsurge of class anger--in the shape of the movement for the New Unions--for half a century.