With the ever increasing serialisation of modern TV series, often stretching plots over more than 10 hours, the idea of a 100 minute, cinematic murder mystery is something of a welcome novelty in 2017. Starting promisingly, with a fun framing device and a litany of camply lurid killings, The Limehouse Golem looks as if it’s going to be a perfect answer for anyone missing the now-rare traditional detective film. As it goes on, however, it loses focus on its titular murderer, to its detriment, leaving the middle act disappointingly muddled and forcing the film into a rushed finale that has to pack in too much drama.
Based on Peter Ackroyd’s novel about a fictionalised, pre-Ripper serial killer in 1880s Victorian London, it might initially be hard to see what the point of The Limehouse Golem is. Why do we need to see yet another late-19th Century prostitute gutted and displayed? Yet, one of the key strengths of Jane Goldman’s script is in its illumination of more intriguing issues in the context of these murders, most importantly the psychology of men who seek to save women from the violence of other men for their own self-congratulation. Lizzie Cree (Olivia Cooke) is a woman who is used to being ‘rescued’, and when she comes under suspicion of murdering her husband just as the Golem murders titillate the London public, nearly-retired Inspector John Kildare (Bill Nighy) seeks to become yet another of her white knights.
Kildare is fruitlessly investigating the Golem murders, and when Lizzie’s dead husband shows up as a suspect, he becomes convinced that he can solve his case and save the young woman in one fell swoop. Naturally, things don’t go this smoothly, with hostile witnesses setting Lizzie back in her trial and other Golem suspects showing up, like theatre actor and Lizzie’s confidante Dan Leno (Douglas Booth), an opium-addicted scholar, and even Karl Marx.
Marx’s inclusion sparks a discussion of class and social values that the film doesn’t have the focus or depth to explore fully – similarly, the Jewish heritage of the Golem monster is only touched upon briefly. But these elements do work wonders in adding plenty of texture to the world. Director Juan Carlos Medina vibrantly recreates Victorian London, packed out music halls competing with poorly secured crime scenes for the fleeting interest of the bloodthirsty British public. Flashbacks to the crimes themselves are carried off with a woozy, nightmarish quality. It lends a more classical horror aesthetic to the sequences, queasily entertaining if not as brutally impactful as they might have been, with the nastiest moments (some of which are overly grim) happening entirely separate from the murders.
Other flashbacks give us insights into characters’ pasts, adding layers to their personalities at the expense of pacing, which becomes sluggish in an overly long stay in one of Lizzie’s memories, stopping the plot dead in its tracks right in the middle of the film. The central mystery is compelling enough, with carefully placed reveals to keep you guessing, though the conclusion will not be to everyone’s liking. I thought it just about worked and was set up well in the final act, but it’s sure to be divisive.
Performances are across the board great, with Nighy on more subdued form than usual and getting excellent support from the ever-reliable, though slightly underserved, Daniel Mays as his partner on the case. Cooke gives a layered and tragic display with enough of a hint of threat to keep Lizzie from ever being a typical damsel in distress, and Booth does perhaps career-best work as Leno. With this cast and a fun mystery at its heart, it’s a shame that The Limehouse Golem is often less than the sum of its parts.