The Limehouse Golem feels like Se7en, in Victorian London. The moment we approach the first murder victims and see the gory mess and grim, cut-up corpses, we know we’re in for something uniquely horrific.
The mild-mannered, 67-year-old Bill Nighy leads the investigation and what a refreshing choice it is. Indeed, The Limehouse Golem rests on his shoulders, as through his eyes we meet Lizzie Cree (Olivia Cooke), Dan Leno (Douglas Booth) and the many suspects and witnesses to the case.
It is 1880 and the bustling East London district of Limehouse includes residents of extreme deprivation and poverty, while in the music halls and libraries, entertainers and academics separate themselves from the crime-ridden streets. Or so we think. After a string of murders in Limehouse, the press names the killer the “Limehouse Golem”. Inspector John Kildare (Nighy) is put on the investigation and he is intimately aware of his purpose: he is the scape goat for crimes that apparently cannot be solved. He is determined to prove his superiors wrong and manages to put together a list of suspects. This includes the philosopher Karl Marx (Henry Goodman), novelist George Gissing (Morgan Watkins), entertainer Dan Leno (Booth) and playwright John Cree (Sam Reid). To muddy the water further, John Cree has recently been murdered and the only suspect facing trial is his wife Elizabeth (Cooke). Can Kildare work out who the killer is before he strikes again?
The Limehouse Golem begins in a playful manner, as music hall entertainer Leno introduces the story “from the end”, he says. Douglas Booth channels Russell Brand in Leno, with his East London dialect and eccentric persona providing a fun character with a key role in the plot itself. Eddie Marsan also appears as his Uncle with a sordid secret. Director Juan Carlos Medina toys with our own guesses of the murderer by recreating the crime with the different suspects, as Kildare interviews each one. The words of a diary provide a narrated back bone to the events and describe, in detail, what precisely happened.
Replacing Alan Rickman, who was originally cast, Bill Nighy is a sincerely likeable and trustworthy alternative. In this period, there are rumours about Kildare’s preference for men, adding an interesting dimension to a period that seldom references sexuality. In the same case, the treatment of women is constantly under scrutiny, as we see Lizzie Cree build a career in a male-controlled profession. Based on the novel, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd, screenplay writer Jane Goldman adds an energy and pace that ensures we are immediately thrown into the horror and connect the dots between the fictional tale and the obsession with celebrity and fame that dogs our modern world.
Nevertheless, The Limehouse Golem, though handsomely mounted, often feels uneven. Veering from the investigation to backstories and reconstructions can feel rushed. This clear-cut whodunit is overcomplicated, despite managing to snap along at a lightning pace. If you have a penchant for gothic murders and British thrillers, then The Limehouse Golem is a respectable choice, but it lacks the charm to elevate it to sit among the memorable horror films of history.
This was originally published for Culturefly.co.uk in September 2017