Studio: RLJ Entertainment
Director: Juan Carlos Medina
Writer: Jane Goldman
Producer: Stephen Woolley, Elizabeth Karlsen, Joanna Lauris
Stars: Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke, Douglas Booth, Daniel Mays, Sam Reid, Maria Valverde, Henry Goodman, Paul Ritter, Morgan Watkins, Peter Sullivan, Eddie Marsan
A detective, an actor, and a wife accused of killing her husband cross paths in the case of a serial killer terrorizing 1880s London.
Eight years before Jack the Ripper would rise from Hell to kill his first prostitute, 1880 London finds itself contending with the similar crimes of ‘The Limehouse Golem.’ Named after the clay creature from Jewish folklore, Scotland Yard considers this savage serial killer to be so elusive, they aren’t certain they can crack the case.
Instead, they’re setting up someone to be their scapegoat. Inspector Kildare has long been dogged by rumors of homosexuality in an era when such whispers can quickly disgrace distinguished detectives. This makes him the perfect person to take the fall for failure.
The discovery of a handwritten diary leads Kildare to conclude the killer is probably one of four suspects: novelist George Gissing, communism creator Karl Marx, beloved comedian Dan Leno, or failed playwright John Cree. Even with three well-known men in the mix, the name ringing the loudest bell is John Cree. This is because Cree recently died of poisoning. And local constable George Flood, who is partnered with Kildare, just arrested Cree’s wife Lizzie for his murder.
With Lizzie currently standing trial, Kildare goes down the time tunnel of John Cree’s past through jailhouse interviews with his widow. Not only does Kildare uncover curious connections between the Crees and other suspects and victims, but he also comes to see Lizzie as a sympathetic chess piece manipulated by machinations in a larger conspiracy.
As crime scene clues from past and present converge, Kildare unravels a mystery centered on a music hall known as much for murder as it is for mirth. Unmasking the Golem proves to be as challenging as Kildare feared, though his direct involvement is about to recast him as a key figure in his own investigation.
For many viewers of “The Limehouse Golem,” it probably won’t take more than, oh, thirty minutes max to deduce the titular terror’s true identity. Foresight doesn’t necessarily erect an impediment to enjoying how this predictable path plays out. However, it introduces an issue with getting behind Kildare as an intellectually elite detective. Bill Nighy, as always, presents a stand-up-and-take-notice command of his cunning and cultured character. He is fierce, dignified, and yet somehow unable to see something obvious for an audience. I want to be admiring Nighy’s inspector for having incredible intuition, not wondering how he fell six steps behind my layman’s mind.
“The Limehouse Golem” might not work as a whodunit. Luckily, the movie is much more satisfying as an immersive period piece punctuated by brief bits of ghastly gruesomeness.
Even cloistered by set dimension restrictions, production design breaks its back bringing Ripper-era London to life in lavish detail. Gaslights, cobblestones, and crinoline skirts don’t even cover the tip of the glacier with regard to how rich this world is. Cramped corridors end up amplifying a claustrophobic intensity perfectly paired with the police procedural plotline.
108 minutes is a touch overlong for “The Limehouse Golem,” which hits overindulgent hiccups like two musical numbers (much of the movie takes place in a theater) that don’t serve the story. At the same time, it seems a crime to tsk-tsk director Juan Carlos Medina for wanting to bask in this terrific throwback atmosphere for as many minutes as he can get away with.
Without noting the credit beforehand, one might guess screenwriter Jane Goldman adapted the movie from a novel (Peter Ackroyd’s “Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem”). “The Limehouse Golem” loads itself to bear with thematic threads and side plots that don’t make sense for this abbreviated narrative, yet seem inspired by some greater value. Karl Marx, for instance, is crossed off so quickly as a suspect, it’s a wonder he is included at all, except as an obligatory afterthought of an addition likely more relevant to the source material.
These kinds of goose chases, which also come in the form of a homophobia seed that doesn’t bear ripe fruit, suggest the script needed another scrubbing to trim down fluff while constructing more convincing misdirects. Although entertaining overall, an underwhelming outcome makes the movie something like donning formal attire to dine with the queen at Buckingham Palace, only to be served a platinum platter of Big Macs and fries.
That’s too harsh of an analogy to justify the attempt at a comedic barb. What I mean to say is that the story isn’t exactly disappointing, though it is loaded in a cannon of top talent and impressive cinematic execution when it could be fired from a pistol all the same.
It’s only a minor shame that the movie could make more out of its story, as it still deserves applause on multiple levels. While the performances won’t rank at the top of their respective all-time lists, the cast is full of actors who are always engaging no matter the movie. And whether the film meets personal preferences for a murder mystery or not, it nevertheless earns an A grade for achieving maximum Victorian villainy on a minimum movie budget.
Review Score: 65