Starring: Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke, Daniel Mays
Director: Juan Carlos Medina
Running Time: 109 mins
Synopsis: Victorian London. A killer is stalking the streets that the rampant media have daubed The Limehouse Golem murders. Enlisted to the case is Inspector Kildare (Nighy) who soon narrows his focus down to 4 suspects, all with ties to the popular musical theatre in Limehouse. One witness may hold the key to the truth but she herself is awaiting trial for the supposed killing of her husband.
London, the late 1800s. A serial killer is on the loose amidst the dank canals, seedy prostitutes and rampant sickness, going by the name of The Limehouse Golem. And yet you’d be hard pressed to know that when watching the film that shares said moniker. Adapted from a 1994 Peter Ackroyd novel by the usually reliable Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass, Kingsman) the film sadly stutters when it should be rife with intrigue, chaos and Gothic murder. Unlike most serial killer pictures wherein the detective on the case is merely a few steps behind every murder, Golem takes a different tact and introduces the sleuth on the case after all the killings have ended.
The Inspector in question is one Kildare (Nighy), brought in to solve the seemingly unsolvable case by a Scotland Yard that seeks a scapegoat, for which the scandal hit Kildare ably hits the mark. This scandal proves promising in its subtle allusions yet screenwriter Goldman never delves into it, leaving it an interesting set dressing to the glum central production. Coupled with Daniel May’s lovably loyal copper (Mays seems destined to play nervy authority figures forever) they soon narrow down their suspect search to 4 names, in a spectacularly clunky series of conveniences that roll the eyes. Predominant in this list of names is a recently deceased journalist, for which a young woman stands accused of poisoning him. This brings Kildare into the path of Olivia Cooke’s Elizabeth Cree. Cooke is a delight here in a role that constantly evolves from shrewish waif to shrewd manipulator. The affection Kildare begins to have for her feeling a little forced but given grace through Nighy’s usual brand of measured sympathy.
However her introduction is the start of the films odd pitch into a strange sort of soap opera. You see the other suspects (outside of Karl Marx, yes that Karl Marx) all revolve around a musical theatre in the heart of Limehouse. A world of divas, miscreants and perverts, but one that director Juan Carlos Medina captures with an evocative energy. But too long is spent on this plotline. Miss Cree rubbing up against numerous players in the company, whilst mysterious deaths plague the scoundrels at their core (not least an always welcome Eddie Marsan as their ringleader). Soon it dovetails into an off kilter love story involving Sam Reid’s boisterous Mr Cree and Douglas Booth’s camp lead actor Dan Leno. Booth is having a ball here, chomping into the drag act material with gusto whilst offering a subtle vulnerability underneath the showmanship.
You may ask, though, what about the actual serial killer. It is a question you will find yourself asking repeatedly throughout Golem’s running time. Due to the fact that the killings have seemingly stopped, there is a conspicuous lack of tension to events. Even when we do see the murders it is via unusually captured flashes Kildare has when confronting the suspects. Imagining each of them committing the monstrous acts, which whilst noticeably bloody, lack any real substance seeing as they are but hallucinations and represent no note of tension. The fact that the killer is so painfully obvious come the halfway mark, means this dramatic build to said reveal is dreadfully inert, despite the best efforts of Nighy.
Ah thank god for Bill Nighy. A welcome presence in whatever he appears in. His knack for wry comedy, vulnerable humanism and commanding authority given plenty of mileage here. The ending, despite its obviousness, is given some much needed heft for how Kildare plays it. Rocking the very foundations of his beliefs, Nighy portrays the shock of it all with wounded devastation. Sadly he, and the rest of the capable cast, are left adrift in a truly misguided film. Juan Carlos Medina should be applauded for conjuring a moody atmospheric London in what is clearly a very low budget. The film at pains to never venture beyond the closed in barriers of the theatre or Scotland Yard, outside of a couple of brief moments. Gore wise Limehouse Golem has some visceral glimpses of brutish corpses but not enough to trouble those accustomed to the likes of Game of Thrones.
These are but minor positives in a film that had some real potential. It is squandered in favour of a messy narrative, head-slappingly obvious mystery and melodramatic operatics that bore more than they thrill. Most egregious of all is that a serial killer flick needs to offer at least a glimpse into the mind of such monstrous behaviour, a look at just how skewered an individual has to be to commit such acts, Golem never achieves this. The obvious reveal could have been salvaged if it were followed with a helpful delve into the culprits mindset, but alas this never materialises. London, the late 1800s. A serial killer is on the loose. Who cares?!?
Verdict: A few solid performances and detailed production design are not enough to raise The Limehouse Golem above anything other than a cinematic shrug. A serial killer thriller that forgets it is one.