Review: The Limehouse Golem

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Juan Carlos Medina’s The Limehouse Golem begins, as it were, at the end. A mascara-adorned actor emerges onto a music hall stage, uplit, breathless and quivering with fear and intensity. With a theatrical pause, he commences the tale of the Limehouse Golem: a supernatural murderer whose brutal and heinous crimes gripped a Victorian London caught between genuine terror and morbid curiosity.

Inspector Kildare (Bill Nighy) and his accomplice Flood (Daniel Mays) in the suitably murky streets of Victorian London

From there, we are transported to the “beginning” of the film, to inspector Kildare (Bill Nighy) and his assignment to the latest crime scene of the Golem’s slew of murders, each more hideous than the last. The film’s initial framing device is superb, and gives the narrative an unrelenting forward momentum as the plot hurtles towards its inevitable finale – the film’s beginning.

In Kildare’s inexorable quest for justice, he narrows down the search of the golem to four men – Karl Marx, George Gissing, Dan Leno and John Cree, a struggling playwright.

There is just one problem – John Cree was found dead in his bed earlier that morning and his wife Elizabeth Cree (Olivia Cooke) is being tried for his murder. Convinced of Elizabeth’s innocence, Kildare sets about questioning her to unravel the truth of the golem, and save Elizabeth from the gallows in the process.

Leno in drag; Douglas Booth shines as the idiosyncratic musical hall performer

Much of the film takes place in Elizabeth’s past as a music hall performer, where she met both the legendary performer Dan Leno as well as her future husband. Its exploration of theatre and acting is an excellent metaphor for the film itself, as Medina blurs the boundaries between the music hall audience and the audience of the cinema. Life begins to imitate art, and art life.

We are sucked into a world of histrionics and pretence, both in the sense of the slapstick acting of the music hall, and the clandestine criminal activities of the elusive Golem. As Douglas Booth’s Dan Leno remarks – “We all wear pantomime masks, don’t we?” Though this analogy can become a little crude at times, the blending of the cinema audience with the world of the Golem was one of the film’s standout features.

The act of pretence is a theme equally applicable to Nighy’s Kildare. A chief constable remarks that Kildare is “not the marrying type”, and the audience soon realises that Kildare is a latent homosexual, who has been used as a scapegoat by Scotland Yard; an expendable officer to take the brunt of the public’s disappointment when the Golem continues to escape justice.

London itself is permeated by a Gothic fog

The film also explores the Victorian fascination with the macabre. At one crime scene of the Golem, the house has been invaded by a collection of passer-bys and journalists, jostling for a peek of bloodstains on the floorboards. At another point, the Golem has smeared on the wall “he who observes spills no less blood than he who inflicts the blow”. The film seems to hold an implicit criticism of the public’s morbid obsession and, in turn, a critique of the modern cinema trend of gratuitous gore and violence. There is a certain parallelism between this film’s relish at the gory details of the Golem’s murder, and the Victorian public baying for blood.

Standout performances include Olivia Cooke’s Elizabeth Cree, who was believable and sympathetic as both the hopeful up-and-coming music hall star and the condemned widow we meet in the film’s present. Nighy fits the bill of the Victorian inspector near perfectly – gruff, blunt and to the point, but with an underlying hint of compassion. Certainly, the most charismatic character was that of Booth’s Dan Leno – this successful performer is bristling with charisma and danger, charm and unease, protectiveness and cruelty.

London itself is dripping with atmosphere – a gothic dread hangs over the impoverished streets of Limehouse, and the set design is generally good, in recreating the dilapidated Victorian terraces. Johan Söderqvist’s score also contains the right balance of tremulous high notes for tension with warm brass for the more uplifting scenes. Unfortunately, the film too often indulges in the clichés of the genre, with establishing shots invariably featuring the Houses of Parliament set against a full moon, and a somewhat predictable twist ending. In particular, the film is reminiscent of Guy Ritchie’s 2009 film, Sherlock Holmes, which the Limehouse Golem shares a common atmosphere with.

Olivia Cooke on set as Elizabeth Cree

One praise I do have of the film is that the plot was actually coherent and understandable upon first viewing. Particularly the recent seasons of Steven Moffat’s Sherlock have adopted such complicated, convoluted and pretentious plot lines that I’ve often found myself resorting to Google to decipher the mystery of each episode. Happily, in the Limehouse Golem, this was far from the case and, when the final twist was revealed, the various unexplained events slotted together like clockwork.

Overall, the Limehouse Golem is a consistently effective, if somewhat clichéd, take on the Victorian detective genre. What the film lacks in originality, it makes up for in excellent performances, a solid script and sound directing. The Limehouse Golem gets four out of five stars.