CAPSULE: A police detective stalks a serial killer in Victorian London and tries to connect it to a recent killing. The film feels like it was dipped in ‘Victorian atmosphere concentrate’. The movie takes itself very seriously indeed, but the viewer can look between the lines to see it as something of a romp. Peter Ackroyd’s 1994 novel ‘Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem’, is the basis of this dourly fun mystery with a popular London music hall as a background. Juan Carlos Medina directs a screen adaptation by Jane Goldman. The film features the never-fail actor Bill Nighy and Olivia Cooke. The mystery is perhaps not enough mysterious, but the acting and the look and feel are worth the trip. Incidentally, one disappointment is that the plot has virtually nothing to do with golems. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
Note: Limehouse is a district in East London that at this time was a realm of poverty and a cesspool of crime, sin and vice. A golem is a creature from Jewish folklore, a clay statue mystically brought to life using the same recipe that God used to bring Adam to life.
Our story starts in 1880 in a run-down district of London. The Ripper has not yet begun his crimes, but he would recognise and approve of the neighbourhood. Sherlock Holmes might suffer a breakdown collecting details. Limehouse is the home of a concentration of drunks, drug addicts, prostitutes, cutpurses, cutthroats and a crowded music hall. There is this new murder that reminds people of a recent and unsolved series of serial murders committed by a character nicknamed the Limehouse Golem. While the killing spree in the film precedes the Ripper murders by about eight years, the golem leaves ripper-like clues such as cryptic messages left on walls near the scene of the killing.
A murder has been committed by poison. The unruly public thinks it is a return of the Limehouse Golem. Assigned to the unpleasant case is John Kildare (played by Bill Nighy). Kildare is in the late period of his career and he suspects he is intended to fail so he can be eased out. Kildare’s chief suspect for the killing is Lizzie Cree (Olivia Cooke), the wife of the murdered man. Also present are familiar faces on good actors like Eddie Marsan and Daniel Mays.
The film is based on fictional murders and a fictional trial, but with personages such as Karl Marx, Dan Leno, and George Gissing added to the story. A setting such as Limehouse would frequently have turned up in Hammer films. Hammer was famous for its low budgets, the kind that were recreated with very simple sets. On the other hand, for this film, art directors Frederic Evard and Nick Wilkinson had a much more appropriate budget and the images are full of life. They are not just sufficient; they are extravagant. They might almost be said to be unrealistically lavish, if that is the right word for depicting a place like Victorian Limehouse. As thick as the settings are, some of the accents are thicker. They are too realistic and indistinct for the ears of the American audiences.
This is a mystery in the best traditions of BBC/PBS ‘Mystery’. I rate ‘The Limehouse Golem’ a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
SPOILER WARNING: The viewer sees too many clues over too short a period of screen time. Don’t try to guess the killer–you might be right.
Mark R. Leeper
© Mark R. Leeper 2017