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Scenes from the Class Struggle in Olde England

In honour of Valentine's Day I thought I'd review Woody Allen's 1996 film Everyone Says I Love You. Here goes: it's bilge. This uncharacteristic succinctness over with, let's move on to two new films with a striking, if rather superficial resemblance: Robert Altman's Gosford Park, and the Hughes brothers' From Hell. They're both costume dramas, both contain murders, and both are about the British class system (obliquely or not). Beyond this, however, they're very different pieces of work.

It's All A Blur

On paper, Gosford Park reads like a traditonal detective story in the Agatha Christie mode. Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) lives in a house, a very big house in the country, and one weekend in 1932 hosts a shooting party there. Amongst the guests are his film-star cousin (Jeremy Northam), his blue-blooded but potless aunt (Maggie Smith), and a large number of other upper-class worthies. It rapidly becomes obvious that there are secrets within secrets here, and tensions rise until - gadzooks! - one of those present is murdered! Twice!

The most immediately striking thing about Gosford Park is the cast, which is incredible. The murderer could open up at them with a gatling gun and still be guaranteed to leave at least one theatrical knight, Bafta laureate or Much-Loved National Treasure standing. Apart from Gambon, Smith, and Northam, there's Alan Bates, Stephen Fry, Derek Jacobi, Kristin Scott Thomas, Richard E Grant, Emily Watson, Helen Mirren, Clive Owen, Kelly Macdonald, Charles Dance, Geraldine Somerville, Ryan Phillippe and Bob Balaban. All the people! So many people! And they all go round and round, round and round in their Gosford Park lives1!

One of the crucial facts about Gosford Park is that a lot of these people are playing the servants: part of the legion of butlers, valets, housekeepers, footmen, maids and cooks that this society rested upon. This is a departure from the usual formula for this kind of story, especially as the script treats them as being every bit as interesting as their masters and mistresses. The logistical nightmare of dealing with so many visitors (not normally even considered by filmmakers) is neatly illustrated, as are the various arcane rituals of upstairs-downstairs life.

The film is primarily about the upstairs-downstairs chasm in British society and the way the people on either side of it interacted and were dependent on each other. Screenwriter Julian Fellowes may be a toff himself but the film is firmly on the side of the proles, with those in charge depicted as shallow, callous and self-obsessed. The murder itself seems to have been something of an afterthought, included solely for form's sake. It's certainly not especially difficult to work out whodunnit, the clues are fairly obvious. But it allows the film to explore its theme more fully, and gives Stephen Fry the chance to ham it up ever so slightly as a well-meaning but dimwitted police inspector, so let's not grouse.

Fry's is only one amongst many well-judged performances, as you might expect from such a cast. Not everyone gets the material they perhaps deserve - Derek Jacobi only seems to have about eight lines, for example - and so there seems to be a good deal of fighting over scraps. Kelly Macdonald is very impressive in the closest thing the film has to a lead role, Michael Gambon makes the most of his chances as the host, and Maggie Smith quietly goes into top gear and starts stealing every scene she appears in.

There's not much wrong with Gosford Park at all: it's intelligent, witty, and superbly written and directed. If the sheer size of the ensemble is a little overwhelming at first, well, stick with it, it all sorts itself out eventually. And if the murder-mystery elements are a little straightforward and undercooked, just accept the fact that you've been conned into watching a finely observed drama, rather than a period pastiche. A classy piece of work, in every sense of the word.

Rip It Up And Start Again

When I was but a lad, it seemed there was a new Jack the Ripper themed film out every couple of years. Something seems to have changed in the intervening time as the last noteworthy Ripper movie I can think of was Time After Time, released over twenty years ago. Last, that is, if you don't count From Hell, based on a graphic novel by Northampton's resident genius, Alan Moore.

From Hell is marginally more historically accurate than some past stabs at this subject - which is to say that there are no appearances by HG Wells, Sherlock Holmes or Dr Jekyll. Set in London in 1888, it concerns a group of Whitechapel prostitutes (led by Heather Graham, but including amongst their number several well-known faces from British TV, even - I think - Nicole from those car adverts) whose already squalid lifestyle gets even worse as someone starts murdering them one by one and then horrifically mutilating the bodies. Scotland Yard put Inspector Fred Abberline (Johnny Depp) on the case. As well as a peeler, Abberline is a clairvoyant (this is less help than you'd expect), and a smackhead (this is a lot more help than you'd expect!). His investigations lead him to uncover a dark secret at the heart of the British establishment...

For all the intimations that this is to be a radical and original new take on the Ripper mythos, there's really not very much new here at all. It's the traditional take on the story, as a predatory toff terrorises vulnerable young harlots from the underclass. The 'solution' proposed by the script is over a quarter of a century old and has already been used as the basis of one pretty good film (1979's Murder By Decree). But the story is told fairly solidly for the most part, with reliable supporting performances from the likes of Ian Richardson, David Schofield, Paul Rhys, and especially Robbie Coltrane and Ian Holm.

Most of the interesting material in From Hell is visual: it's aesthetically lustrous, palpably brooding, with Victorian London designed and shot like something out of a painting by Hieronymous Bosch. Depp's opium-provoked visions are convincingly hallucinatory and the film is always worth looking at. The Hughes even retain the almost self-parodic image of the Ripper as clad in a top hat and cape, and have a lot of fun deploying this icon as a silhouette, etc.

But ultimately, I was disappointed by From Hell. As a horror film it's not very scary - and, caveat emptor, not very violent or gory either. Most of the really nasty stuff is implied, although there's an impressive but gratuitous cameo by the Elephant Man in all his twisted glory. This lack of explicitness didn't bother me at all, certainly nowhere near as much as the performances of the two leads. Depp is fine but for his Cockney accent - it's not Mary Poppins time, thankfully, but it's still much too EastEnders for a middle-class police detective. Heather Graham isn't too bad as the ho with a heart of gold but it's a stock character from start to finish and she's obviously the only whore in Whitechapel with her own hairdresser and skin-care specialist. The romance between the two doesn't ring true at all.

However, this in turn is eclipsed by a truly awful conclusion: an unconvincing plot-twist has been tacked on in an attempt to provide a bittersweet happy ending. To me it seemed patronising and quite possibly insulting to the genuine victims of the real Ripper murderer. Although, if we're going to start down that route, perhaps we should question the whole process of mythologising a brutal and misogynistic serial killer for the sake of entertainment. From Hell is aware of the iconic status of Jack the Ripper as one of the fountainheads of modern horror - both real and fantastical - but chooses not to explore this idea in any real detail. A shame: because while From Hell is a moderately satisfying horror mystery - especially, I'd imagine, if you're not too familiar with the subject matter - it's not nearly as insightful or original as it thinks it is. Back to the drawing board, guys.

And finally... in the Awix household, we've been spending a lot of time discussing the foyer displays (to be found in most multiplexes) advertising Men in Black 2. Now, I don't think the photos are of the real Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. I reckon it's lookey-likees; however I have no proof of this whatosever. And so I turn to you, the great h2g2 membership. What do you think? Is this the real Tommy and Will? Take a look and let me know. And on that note, a pleasant evening to you all.


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1Look on the bright side, the jokes can only get better from now on.

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