Synopsis – A series of murders has shaken the community to the point where people believe that only a legendary creature from dark times – the mythical so-called Golem – must be responsible.
My Take – A film set in the Victorian era with a serial killer on the loose, sign me up! While the genre of period drama receives a lot of love in the British film & TV industry, with arousing examples such as Downton Abbey, Ripper Street, Peaky Blinders and Taboo, just to name some of the most recent successes, it’s a shame for the rest of the world, films like Crimson Peak & Stonehearst Asylum (who have their own set of plus points), is what represents the section of gothic mystery genre. Here, Jane Goldman, the writer of the most successful British horror film of all time, The Woman in Black, takes us back to Victorian era London where the community of Limehouse lived in fear of the titular mythical serial killer. While the film is not perfect, it stills ends up as a very satisfying watch, mainly as the film excels as a character piece as well as a feminist/ politically correct text. The film does succeed at providing an intriguing mystery, & its fair share of grim shocks, it never forgets to have fun with its theme. Personally, I have always enjoyed getting to the dark underbelly of Victorian London, and despite the obvious of how much director Juan Carlos Medina seems inspired from similarly bleak and grimy 2001 film From Hell, the film succeeds in being a valiant attempt. While, some might be shocked by the surprise ending (well I was not) , the atmospheric set up along with the violence, gore, the naughtiness & the suspense, enables the film to pack quite a punch. Based on the novel by Peter Ackroyd, the story follows Closeted Inspector John Kildare (Bill Nighy) in the unforgiving, squalid streets of Victorian London in 1880. Assigned to the case of the Golem murders, in Yard poster boy Inspector Roberts, whose pursuit of the Golem has been unsuccessful, Kildare has taken over to take the expected fall.
Joined by a local bobby named George (Daniel Mays), a trusty cop who proves valuable for his knowledge of the neighborhoods, Kildare begins to follow the lead initially overlooked by his superiors, as things begin to materialize, he finds in the British Library a handwritten diary/confession which could only have been penned by one of the four men who had visited the reading room at that time: John Cree (Sam Reid), Karl Marx (Henry Goodman), scholar George Gissing (Morgan Watkins) and self-made actor/impresario Dan Leno (Douglas Booth). However, the snag is that Cree has recently been found dead, and his wife, Elizabeth Cree (Olivia Cooke), is accused of poisoning her husband. Kildare sets about proving her innocence, even as Elizabeth’s own life story – of abuse, neglect, exploitation and eventual celebrity on the boards – also turns out to be the subject of the late John’s failed play Misery Junction, in which Elizabeth would star as herself. Kildare interrogates and digs into her past, piecing together clues that reveal a twisted story that he must unravel if he seeks to unmask the Golem before Lizzie hangs. Told in a series of interlocking flashbacks that form a mosaic of both Elizabeth’s troubled past and of London’s rich underbelly, and presenting its own grisly precursor to Jack the Ripper, the film is a whodunit that carves up Victorian society to both comic and tragic effect, and like any good drama, it comes with enough variety to please everyone in the audience. An old-fashioned killing spree with a taste for swift justice, the film moves its way to the truth like a hound on a scent, snatching key suspects and pondering over their potential involvement in a Se7en-like manner, rendering its monster faceless through a visual manhunt, the film approaches its pre- Jack the Ripper tale from numerous angles, referring to only one written confession yet exploring a variety of faces as the clues fall into place like a fairly standard Sherlock Holmes story. Thankfully the film is atmospheric and manages to hold your attention. This is partly due to the detailed scenic constructions that create a dark, intimate atmosphere but also due to the excellent casting. Director Juan Carlos Medina mounts an onscreen drama in which marriages are sham, murders are stage-managed and only myths and legends are realized. By the time the end of this twisty, topsy-turvy narrative has caught up with its beginning in a world of illusions and performances, nothing seems the same any more, all roles have been reversed, and the script has been rewritten several times to center, elevate and immortalize the Victorian age’s bit players. Furthermore, the story is a gripping one, devilishly clever and the macabre element is quite unflinching, atmospherically this film does not hold back. The suspense levels are high, as is the shock value, the music hall atmosphere is both fun and seedy and the gender slant is interesting. The pursuit of the murderer is slow-burning and is littered with graphic, somewhat theatrical ‘re-enactments’ of the Golem’s crimes, imagined by the protagonist with a different suspect as the killer in each vision. The twist is rather predictable, yet Kildare’s revelation and the toll it takes on him is what makes the film’s ending so effective, all thanks to Juan Carlos Medina whose direction is taut and stylish, while Jane Goldman adapts the book with flourish, providing a clever and intelligent script that is rich in suspense and with a healthy dose of eloquent, dry humor. Writer Goldman installs a number of twists and turns to keep the audience on their toes, second guessing everything and hence providing somewhat expected moments with a surprisingly unexpected feel.v
Much of Juan Carlos Medina’s first English-language feature is told via flashback, with Lizzie reminiscing from her prison cell to Kildare about how she went from abject poverty to stagehand to the toast of London, with the help of Douglas Booth‘s celebrated, real-life singer/drag artist Dan Leno. As Kildare gains her trust, we learn how she was molested as a child and how, later, a besotted Cree pursued her. “You don’t need saving,” Kildare tells Lizzie at one point. “Not by me. Not by any man.” The film essentially becomes her life story, a story paved in abuse and rape, but equally as much resilience making, Lizzie a strong feminist character & her life, as viewed by Detective Kildare, holds the key to unveiling the mystery of the Golem, but the film plays a dangerous game, one that can easily reveal its hand before the final bets have been placed. The films main focus will arouse suspicion as to its ending, & I entertained the thought of what was to be the conclusion of the film, even though, I had an idea on what to expect. Goldman‘s script thus creates a very complex character in Lizzie through excellent character development, which the story obviously gives an opportunity for. As a spectator, I found myself feeling for Lizzie similarly to how Kildare does, with sympathy and respect that almost blinded me from the inconsistencies. As well as Lizzie, Kildare has a subtle yet effective form of character development to him, adding a rather complex and enduring reason as to why he wishes to save Lizzie. Goldman writes Kildare and Lizzie, as well as the rest of the film, in a surprisingly politically correct way, one which isn’t conventional of Victorian era period pieces, and so works in the film’s favor. Along the way he encounters a bevy of great historical figures who become primary suspects, including political theorist Karl Marx, writer George Gissing, and actor Dan Leno. One of the film’s more unique stylistic decisions sees Kildare imagine these personages reenacting the grisly killings. So if you’ve ever wanted to see political theorist Karl Marx brutally decapitate a prostitute, this film’s for you. So, what is the problem? Well, there are a few plot points that don’t really go anywhere, mainly around Kildare’s character, he doesn’t get much development and we don’t learn that much about him, for example, there is a sub-plot about him being suspected of being gay, but it doesn’t go anywhere, they literally bring it up for one scene and it is never mentioned again! It might as well have been taken out of the film for all the good it did! It also assumes that you are much more familiar with Dan Leno than I suspect the average audience member would be considering that there is not a lot of explanation about his life and work in this film, although early portions of the film do show a lot of his performance style. The theatrical feel of the film will divide audiences — for some, it may feel too much like a stage performance. It is this tone which makes the film thrives during the scenes in the Limehouse Music Hall, where Leno and Lizzie perform. The two performances holding it all together are Olivia Cooke & Bill Nighy. Missing the piercing line-delivery of the late and great Alan Rickman, whose casting as the film’s star John Kildare came too late into his real-life cancer diagnosis, the film does its best to respectfully recast its lead role, by resting it all on Bill Nighy’s mighty shoulders. Being immensely watchable as ever, Nighy makes Kildare a steely-eyed brainiac whose deeply caressing voice and sinewy presence makes for one of his best performances and honestly, the kind of character that deserves a series. Oliva Cooke is equally impressive! Being the other half of the story, she is given plenty of edge to be charming, radiant and very engaging, making one care for her and roots for her innocence. Douglas Booth in drag was a surprising standout! He is hilarious yet brooding as the eccentric performer Dan Leno. Sam Reid does well in his role as did other actors like María Valverde, Daniel Mays and Eddie Marsden who give terrific performances in their specific roles. On the whole, ‘The Limehouse Golem’ is an engaging thriller which despite being a little under-written is very enjoyable.
Directed – Juan Carlos Medina
Rated – R
Run Time – 109 minutes