UK Release Date: 1st September 2017
Runtime: 109 minutes
Director: Juan Carlos Medina
Writer: Jane Goldman
Starring: Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke, Daniel Mays, Douglas Booth, Sam Reid, Eddie Marsan, Morgan Watkins, Henry Goodman, María Valverde
Synopsis: A police inspector determined to prove his mettle takes on the difficult case of the eponymous killer, who brings a sense of theatrically to his crimes, but continually eludes capture.
With its combination of period trappings and explosive gore, The Limehouse Golem is something of an odd beast. It’s a flamboyant, lurid murder mystery that combines the violence of an 80s slasher with the realistic Victorian feel of a high-end period drama. Penned by Kick-Ass screenwriter Jane Goldman and based upon a highly-regarded 1990s novel, it’s an ambitious crime story that mixes reality and fiction in interesting ways – using elements of Jack the Ripper in a tale that sees Karl Marx accused of murder – to create a unique and compelling thriller.
A series of horrific murders is spreading across the Limehouse area of London, with the corpses mutilated in inventive ways. Inspector John Kildare (Bill Nighy) is given the case, suspicious he might be being used as a scapegoat, and takes PC Flood (Daniel Mays) as his partner in the investigation. Kildare’s enquiries soon take him to the world of the music halls, with comedy star Dan Leno (Douglas Booth) and recently deceased playwright John Cree (Sam Reid) among the suspects. Soon, Kildare comes to believe the answers surrounding the crime may lie with Cree’s wife Elizabeth (Olivia Cooke) – who is on trial for her husband’s murder.
The Limehouse Golem is an unusual thriller, which is unafraid to occasionally push the boat out with scenes of graphic and horrifying violence. It’s also a movie that flirts with comedy as a result of its excursions into the high-camp and lurid colours of the music hall. Douglas Booth finally finds a role as compelling as his cheekbones in the shape of drag artist Dan Leno and Olivia Cooke brings a real cheeky sense of fun to a performance of smutty song ‘What Did She Know About Railways?’. It’s this contrast between horror and humour that makes this more intriguing than the average murder-mystery.
Bill Nighy does a terrific job of holding things together as the copper at the centre of solving the case. He’s a man who has been kept down by the system due to rumours about his sexuality – he’s described as “not the marrying kind” – and believes he has been handed this case so he can be the fall guy. The role originally went to Alan Rickman and there are shades of the character that suggest his presence, but Nighy is a solid leading man and has a strange, pseudo-avuncular chemistry with the supremely talented Olivia Cooke, as well as a prickly back-and-forth with Daniel Mays. Cooke proves to be the heart of the film and has a sinister side lurking beneath her wide-eyed ingénue appearance.
There’s a bizarro joy to the way The Limehouse Golem approaches its central mystery. We learn about the crimes as Kildare reads diary extracts left behind by the killer, with a variety of suspects fresh in his mind. Kildare imagines the murders as violent reconstructions with each suspect, so this is a story that treats its audience to the bizarre spectacle of Karl Marx mutilating a recently deceased body. It’s a film that makes some savvy points about how a society gets caught up in baying for blood, with the killer constantly amping up the theatricality of their actions.
As a basic murder-mystery, this isn’t going to get the pulse racing. The obvious culprit emerges pretty early in the story and there isn’t a surprise in sight on that basis, but there is still a joy in how The Limehouse Golem slots together when the moment of resolution arrives. More than anything, it’s a slice of Gothic camp with a dark side. As Olivia Cooke’s character sorrowfully says in one exchange with Kildare: “if you seek a dim view, be sure to ask a comedian”.
Pop or Poop?
The Limehouse Golem is a simple idea, executed with real flamboyance by the cast and director Juan Carlos Medina. It makes the most of Bill Nighy’s reliable gravitas in the leading role, as well as bigger performances from younger cast members like Olivia Cooke and Douglas Booth.
It’s not a massively difficult mystery, but there’s a joy in its craziness and everything fits together like cogs in a well-oiled machine. As a classic tale in the British Gothic mould, there’s plenty here to enjoy.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.