THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM (15)
Director: Juan Carlos Medina
Screenplay: Jane Goldman
Review: David Stephens
There’s something indefinably attractive and appropriate about Victorian London as the backdrop to a genre story. Whether it’s Sherlock Holmes prowling the night in foggy streets in search of Jack the Ripper in films such as “Murder by Decree”, or the collective literary horrors that came together in the three seasons of “Penny Dreadful”, the gaslight streets can look and feels as atmospheric as a crumbling castle in Transylvania. Although the reality of poverty and degradation, along with the massive gap between the rich and the poor (it’s not just the 21st Century that suffers this), is often skirted over, it provides some marvellous cinematic images. With CG and SFX now able to almost perfectly recreate the locations, it’s only a wonder that more movies don’t make the most of it. However, here we have the tale of “The Limehouse Golem” set several years before the reign of Jack the Ripper in Whitechapel. Based on the book “Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem” by Peter Ackroyd, it’s been adapted for the screen by Jane Goldman, who’s worked on everything from “Kingsman” to “The Woman in Black”. Directed by Juan Carlos Medina, who also made the disturbing horror drama “Painless” (2012), it’s getting a major release in UK cinemas with a theatrical and home release due shortly in the US. YGROY dons the deerstalker and minds the gap whilst we take a look at the film…
It’s 1880 in London and two people are being put in uncomfortable predicaments outside of their control. Inspector John Kildare (Bill Nighy in a role that was originally to have been played by the late Alan Rickman) is being forced to take on the case of the “Limehouse Golem”. The self-named “Golem” is a ferocious murderer who has brutally killed and disfigured several victims already, with the latest atrocity involving the slaughter of an entire household including the children and a servant. Having had his career stymied due to gossip about his sexuality, Kildare is assuming that he’s being set up for a fall and a stint as a scapegoat. Meanwhile, ex-music hall star Elizabeth Cree (Olivia Cooke) finds her husband dead in bed and it’s initially thought to be suicide by poison. But the maid (María Valverde) points the finger at her mistress and the widow is soon in the dock for murder. When the dead husband becomes a posthumous suspect for the Golem murders, Kildare questions Cree and soon becomes obsessed with her, convinced that she’s innocent and that the Golem is somehow linked to the music hall she played at and a local library. His list of suspects then grows to include the real-life figures of star performer Den Leno (Douglas Booth) and even Karl Marx, before the identity of the Golem is finally revealed.
If you’re expecting a straightforward Victorian murder-mystery or an updated Hammer-style Ripper-fest … that’s not what’s on the table here. Yes, in essence it is a “whodunnit?” but there’s much more at play. The plot mixes the (pleasingly lurid and gory) murders with some Grand Guignol melodrama, and adds large dollops of social commentary into the mix. Gender bias, sexual identity, perversion, abuse, and poetic justice; are all themes that have their part to play in the story. It’s sometimes a little OTT (although that’s often intentional), and the whole thing feels like a mixture of the BBC TV shows “Taboo” (with Tom Hardy) and “Ripper Street”.
The form of the narrative is quite atypical, with the even the very first scene promising a warping of the time-lines and sub-plots. So we get the current events of Kildare’s investigations entwining with the backstory of Cree’s rise to stardom, along with several flashbacks to the gruesome murders themselves. Cleverly the killings take the form of visual reconstructions, voiced and acted by the suspect that Kildare is currently questioning … so even Karl Marx gets portrayed as a psychopath at one point! The jumps in timeline are nicely handled by Carlos Medina and makes for a pleasing effect in the telling of the story as the significance of the opening scene becomes apparent at the end.
Well known from genre offerings like her much-loved character from “Bates Motel” and the unexpectedly successful “Ouija”, Cooke turns in another blinding performance here. Although she seems a typical made-to-suffer Victorian heroine, she plays Cree as a proud and multi-faceted character, who rises in society through sheer talent and hard work. Booth is also very good as the genuine music-hall clown Dan Leno (although he seems to be channelling the popular UK comedian Micky Flanagan at some points), portraying him as a decent person on the surface but with possible hidden depths. By contrast, Nighy does seem to be a little subdued compared to other recent performances which possibly reflects his submerged personality in the story, although he does nail a couple of confrontation and reaction scenes.
Although there is some minimal location shooting, a lot of the scenes take place in crowded interiors or claustrophobic streets, so you never really get the sense of a (literal) dirty great metropolis. It’s very much in love with the specifics of that era though. Music hall is central to the plot, with some characters belting out filthy song lyrics, with double-entendres that would make Austin Powers blush. There’s also some knowing references to the public’s ghoulish fascination with the grotesque, with all and sundry running through puddles of gore at one crime scene, leading one police constable to sadly state: “If I were despatched to Hell, I wouldn’t notice the difference … ‘cept for the weather of course”.
Without getting all spoilery, the denouement does err towards predictability somewhat, but having said that it is pulled off remarkably well and ends the film on a definite high-note. Fans of the book will be no doubt thrilled in the successful way that the film manages to keep that canny mix of fact and fiction that marked the novel for high praise. Probably the major issue for some people will be that it’s far more interested in the social themes and ideas, rather than being a period murder mystery. Especially given that Kildare’s investigation seems to entirely consist of seeing who’s read and scribbled in a book and then matching samples of handwriting to it. It also feels a little BBC-Sunday-Night-Drama as well, rather than a cinematic experience. But there’s still plenty to appreciate here though; Cooke’s transition from wide-eyed street urchin to dame of the stage, the unashamedly bloody killings, and the poetic endings that tie up the story. It’s not necessarily a “ripping” yarn but you’ll still find things to warm to in this offbeat “Penny Dreadful”…