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Detective Work 

by Ray Pride


Was Jack the Ripper the "father of the 20th century?" Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's comprehensive feat of Ripperology in the form of a graphic novel, From Hell, makes rich source material for the fourth feature by the Hughes brothers (Menace II Society, Dead Presidents). From Hell is a stylish, if breathlessly paced examination of one convoluted theory of how the first serial killings, London's notorious turn-of-the-century Ripper murders, took place; it's as much a museum piece as a thriller.


Johnny Depp is opium-light playing one of his trademark narcotized sensitive sorts; Heather Graham is the gleaming-clean, wide-blue-eyed prostitute who offers clues -- and hope. Other actors who make an impression include Katrin Cartlidge, Ian Holm and the wry Robbie Coltrane. Shot in Prague on intricate period-recreation sets by Peter Deming, who also photographed David Lynch's gorgeous Mulholland Drive, From Hell is an eyeful.


On the Sunday afternoon of the first U.S. and U.K. attacks on Afghanistan, Depp is dapper, wearing a high-colored chartreuse-stripe on deepest-purple suit, a Prada undertaker. He smiles at any and all jokes, taking gentle puffs at a small cig that smells suspiciously like hand-rolled Bali Shag tobacco. "If there's any day to dress like a grownup," he says, "it's today."


The 38-year-old actor was impressed by both Moore and Campbell's graphic novel and the work of the Hughes Brothers. "The graphic novel is this tome, this really emissive piece of work. I've admired the brothers' work for a long time. I also admired that Hollywood offered them everything under the sun after Menace II Society and Dead Presidents and they didn't take up that offer. They waited. They refused to be labeled and categorized. 'Oh! These guys make ghetto films!' Their vision, y'know, their particular take on this story, their passion to tell this story and what it meant to them, about the class system. Conspiracy theories. But they came to my house with books of images, [some of which] weren't even related to the Ripper case, [things] which inspired them that they wanted to appear in the film. Those guys, really, they got me excited."


What about Inspector Abberline, the druggy cop who seems to have some sort of second sight? "Oh, I thought we could take Abberline and, oh, I don't know, add a few things," Depp smiles, throwing his shoulder-length hair back. "Multiply his demons in a way. Something I find interesting in regard to police officers. There have been a great number of documented cases where police officers admit to battling alcoholism, prescription drugs, non-prescription drugs, just because of the nature of their work, having to be out there in the streets doing what they have to do. I thought it might be interesting to give Abberline that within the context of Victorian London. What would have been available then would have been [the drugs he takes, which include the liquid opiate] laudanum, absinthe and opium. And certainly alcohol."


So Abberline's troubled. "I think Abberline is battling a lot of demons besides the Ripper. Even before the Ripper."


Why does he have a Cockney accent? "I was experimenting. The real Abberline is from Dorset, which is West country, it's a very specific accent, and really a strange one. Basically, had I done the Dorset accent, people would have thought I was just doing a really, really bad English accent." He laughs, offers a smile. "So I decided to look elsewhere. I thought, maybe Manchester, which is working class. But again, you might have needed subtitles. So then I went to the idea of the South London accent, which would say more about Abberline, to show that he was in fact from the streets, not from a privileged background. I felt Abberline was, oh, moving slower than everyone else. I thought Abberline is probably inebriated most of the time."


Did the cobblestone streets in Prague help? "Before we started shooting, I wandered in the real Whitechapel with one of the great Ripperologists and went to the Ten Bells [a favored hangout of the prostitutes who were terrorized] and went to the sites of the killings. So then when I arrived in Prague, the brothers had been explaining, they had built Whitechapel. I had no idea that I was actually going to step into Whitechapel. I thought it would be facades, but it was unbelievable, six or seven blocks of London. You felt like you stepped back in time. It was only London around you. That certainly helped me."


So is there a motif in doing another period detective so soon after Sleepy Hollow? "No. Abberline and Ichabod Crane are alike only in chasing specters."

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