The lumbering and violent Limehouse Golem is smarter than it seems
Director: Juan Carlos Medina Starring: Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke, Douglas Booth Running Time: 105 minutes
Imagine one of those ITV murder mystery shows that takes place over a couple of Sunday nights, add a little budget and plenty of blood and replace the usual suspects with Karl Marx, George Gissing and Dan Leno and you’re well on your way to having The Limehouse Golem, a gory thriller about a series of murders in the streets of Victorian London at the hands of a Pepsi-brand Jack the Ripper. Adapted from Peter Ackroyd’s novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem by Jane Goldman (of Kick Ass, Kingsman and more), the most appealing aspects of this mystery take their time in coming, with Goldman clearly enjoying the twists involved with the story’s killer. Pepsi Twist was always the better one anyway.
Bill Nighy slots capably into the kind of Cushing-esque role old Brit actors are built to play, Inspector John Kildare, who is brought in to find the culprit behind a series of murders most foul in the Limehouse area of London. Kildare has a chief suspect, the failed playwright George Cree, but proving it is a little complicated as Cree himself has just been poisoned. His widow, the music hall comic-turned housewife Lizzie (Olivia Cooke) is on trial for his murder and while the public delight in her persecution, Kilare endeavours to prove that Cree was the Golem and that Lizzie knew and killed him in self-defence, in the hopes of saving her from the hangman’s noose.
Kildare should have motivation enough already to discover who the serial killer is, with his career in need of resurrection after it was derailed by whispers and inneundo, but Lizzie’s big eyes and sympathetic stories quickly bring out the paternal instincts in the detective. He wants to save her, but he’s not the only man in Lizzie’s life who’s ever wanted to do so. George Cree wanted to save her from the poverty she came from, but implicit in this seemingly selfless act is control, a sense of ownership that ends up leading to violence. When it isn’t getting bogged down in procedural details, there is cleverness in the way that Goldman’s script explores this mentality.
There are some adaptation pains at play here. Though there are other suspects in play for Kildare to see, Cree and Lizzie’s old colleague the comic Dan Leno are more plot relevant than Marx and friends, yet the film still has to go through the motions of speaking to them. The plot gets bogged down as Kildare investigates men he doesn’t even think are responsible, re-imagining the killings in an effort to keep things interesting, while ideas like the antisemitism implied in dubbing a psychotic killer a “golem” or the general air of gloom in London at the time feel like they have chunks left behind on the page. Director Juan Carlos Medina is a solid but unspectacular hand on this evidence, bringing an infectious enthusiasm to the film’s lurid thrills but little visual variety. London through this lens is a murky, samey looking place until it gets some blood all over it. There is a salacious fun to be had in The Limehouse Golem, particularly once it arrives at its somewhat spoilery smarts, but it requires wading through a lot of clunky exposition and discussion first. One can understand at times the impulse to cut to the heart of the matter.(3 / 5)