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Spotlight on: Jack the Ripper
Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper -- Case Closed by Patricia Cornwell
From Hell directed by Allen and Albert Hughes

Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper -- Case Closed by Patricia Cornwell From Hell Patricia Cornwell, Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper -- Case Closed
The Hughes Brothers (Allen and Albert), From Hell

Patricia Cornwell, best known for her mystery series starring chief medical examiner Kay Scarpetta, poses her theory of the identity of the most infamous unidentified murderer in England's history, Jack the Ripper, in Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper -- Case Closed. Cornwell believes that this mythic figure was Walter Richard Sickert, an actor and painter. She states this up front and then spends the rest of the book delineating the evidence she has collected and interpreted using her extensive knowledge of forensics.

Portrait of a Killer gets a little slow in parts as Cornwell seemingly gives us every piece of evidence that acts in her favor, simultaneously painting a portrait of nineteenth-century Whitechapel and, for all intents and purposes, acting as Sickert's biographer. In the hands of a lesser writer, this would kill the book, but Cornwell's practiced narrative style saves it by turning these potentially dry facts into a well-told story.

Followers of "Saucy Jack's" story will recognize such names as Fred Abberline and Mary Kelly from history (as well as the graphic novel From Hell and its film adaptation). Some surprising folk that pop up are James McNeill Whistler and Oscar Wilde, contemporaries and friends of Sickert. Cornwell's descriptions make Whitechapel come alive and make for a fully-realized book. Whether I believe Cornwell's deduction or not, I can't deny the power of her convictions or the solidity of her logical conclusions based on the facts as she presents them.

It's a controversial theory, to be sure, to point the finger at a semi-famous name, especially as From Hell based its storyline on a completely different perpetrator -- and one more readily accepted by the people at the time of the murders.

The movie is entertaining, but ultimately forgettable. Johnny Depp, who I find watchable in anything, gives a solid performance in the midst of mediocrity -- and in spite of Heather Graham -- as Inspector Fred Abberline. Graham tries on several accents before finally deciding on an unidentifiable one as Mary Kelly in Allen and Albert Hughes' adaptation of Alan Moore's graphic novel -- which in turn derives its solution from Stephen Knight's Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution.

Robbie Coltrane steals every scene he is in with his sheer presence, and the support is excellent, especially from the prostitutes, who blend pathos with humor to a fine degree. Ian Holm also gives a subtle showing as the queen's doctor, only lapsing into melodrama during the end, when the killer's identity is revealed. (As Cornwall's book begins with its killer revealed, I used his name in this review. However, From Hell's killer is meant to be a surprise, so that will not come from me.)

Style is definitely more important here than substance. The sets are immaculate and reportedly identical to the true locations -- the Hugheses even attempted accurate recreations of the victims' wounds -- and the tone is set from the beginning. The brothers really know how to work a camera and how to get fine performances from their actors (to a point), although I think it says something that, ultimately, I was more interested in From Hell's DVD extras -- involving the making of the film and the history of Jack the Ripper -- than I was in the film itself.

But either way you lean, both Portrait of a Killer and From Hell are solid mainstream entertainment and evoke their time and location excellently. People interested in Jack the Ripper should check out both and draw their own conclusions.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission.

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