‘Before the Ripper,’ this film’s tagline begins, ‘fear had another name.’ The fear in question is the titular terror, a killer responsible for the several gruesome murders in Victorian London’s Limehouse community. The script was adapted by Jane Goldman from Peter Ackroyd’s novel, ‘Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem’, and its twisty, playful thrills mesh well with Juan Carlos Medina’s gothic but always lively directorial style, even if its major reveal feels somewhat signposted. A classy British cast also do their bit to carry the proceedings.
The year is 1880, and Scotland Yard has just assigned Detective Inspector John Kildare (Bill Nighy) to the Limehouse Golem case. No one expects Kildare to make any headway apprehending the Golem, who has just butchered a young family – Kildare is more of a sacrificial lamb for the media, ostracised by his peers for his rumoured homosexuality and assigned London’s most notorious murderer in only his first case. A message, painted in blood at the scene of the family’s slaughter, leads Kildare and his assistant, bobby George Flood (Daniel Mays), to the reading room of the London Library, where they find the Golem’s horrifying diary scrawled into the pages of a John Quincy essay collection. Requisitioning the attendance record of the library’s reading room, Kildare and Flood arrive at four suspects, each of whom signed in on the days of the diary’s entries; music hall entertainer Dan Leno (Douglas Booth, enjoying himself), the philosopher Karl Marx (Henry Goodman), novelist George Gissing (Morgan Watkins) and failed playwright John Cree (Sam Reid, glowering). Adding a further sense of history to the already atmospheric sets and handsomely crafted costumes, each of these suspects, bar John Cree, is a real figure from the period.
However, Kildare learns that John Cree has recently been poisoned himself, and that Cree’s wife and Dan Leno’s colleague, Lizzie (Olivia Cooke), is the chief suspect. While he continues to track down the other suspects, Kildare begins to visit Lizzie in prison, convinced that her husband’s demise may have something to do with the Golem. Her ongoing trial looks to be heading towards a guilty verdict and a death sentence, adding a pressing time constraint to Kildare’s investigation. Bill Nighy is his usual charming self as Kildare, although he gets to deal with darker subject matter than his usual, more comedic roles tend to allow. Olivia Cooke, who impressed me in 2015’s ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’, makes for a decent pairing with Nighy, and she projects a believably tough exterior over her vulnerability.
Throughout the film, flashbacks tell of Lizzie’s impoverished upbringing and her rise within the world of London’s music halls. These excursions into the past add a touch of drama to the film, as the complicated relationships between Lizzie, John Cree, Dan Leno, music hall operator ‘Uncle’ (Eddie Marsan), performer Aveline (María Valverde) and others play out. Between these reminiscences and the playfully staged murder recreations (each of which casts a difference suspect into the role of the Golem), director Juan Carlos Medina gets to flex his energetic directorial range. The visuals are also alluring, often coloured between the shadows with reds and greens, a notable contrast with the dominant cyan-and-yellow palettes of many stylised features made today.
Where I had problems with the films, it was largely because Jane Goldman’s screenplay (and presumably the novel too) writes its own undoing. With a few exceptions (Tarantino’s ‘Inglourious Basterds’ comes to mind), period films don’t often meddle with history. Viewers are conditioned to expect certain historical facts to be maintained. For instance, Karl Marx was not known for being a serial murderer. Given that Cree is the only fictional creation among the suspects, his ultimate culpability for the crimes seems likely from an audience’s perspective from the moment the list of suspects is drawn up. As dramatic irony dictates, this same logic is not available to our sleuths, so there is a lingering disconnect between what we know and what the characters come to know, and the time they spend developing this knowledge feels a little wasted. Of course, given that the blame seems destined to land on Cree, one spends this runtime bracing for and imagining possible twists. When the denouement rolls around, and the anticipated twist comes with it, it does feel a little ‘I told you so’, even if the big reveal manages to surprise.
Fast-paced, spooky, spirited, and well played by a noteworthy cast, ‘The Limehouse Golem’ is an enjoyable historical mystery, with flaws that can be overlooked with minimal effort.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting