‘Here we are again!’ Bellows an, unusually charismatic, Douglas Booth throughout Juan Carlos Medina’s The Limehouse Golem. Booth is playing the real life figure of Dan Leno – a Victorian music hall star, renowned for his drag entertainments – and is one of many players in this, Penny Dreadful-esque, Victorian murder mystery whose delightful performance succeeds in elevating an otherwise fairly predictable film into something really rather smashing. Karl Marx shows up too.
When journalist-cum-playwright John Cree (Sam Reid) is found poisoned in his bed, it is not long before his semi-estranged wife Elizabeth (Olivia Cooke), a ‘belle of the music hall’, is incarcerated and sentenced to death by the noose. ‘Why would she prepare her husband a nightcap,’ caws Lizzie’s antagonistic maid in faux-innocence, ‘if they were not on speaking terms?’ Things don’t look good; except, Inspector John Kildare (a serious-ish turn from Bill Nighy) smells a rat.
Alongside the death of John Cree, Scotland Yard have been investigating a gory series of murders – a la Jack the Ripper – in the community of Limehouse, London. Terrified locals have started referring to the unknown killer as ‘the Limehouse Golem’ – taking the name from that of a dark, mythical creature of the distant past.
Naturally, Kildare suspects that it is, in fact, the so-called Golem behind the killing of John Cree and so sets out to prove Lizzie’s innocence and catch the fiend in the process. It’s all terribly arch, lurid even in its brutally graphic presentation, but very pleasingly gothic.
At the front and centre of the film, the, typically, whimsical Nighy presents an unusual choice for the role of Kildare, who was originally due to be played by the late Alan Rickman. Of course, Nighy is so endlessly watchable as a performer that it matters little. Supporting, Daniel Mays plays Watson to Nighy’s Holmes as police constable George Mays, with an excellent ensemble rounded off by Eddie Marsan and Adam Brown. Indeed, it is the strength of game performances here that make the film.
Jane Goldman’s script, adapted from a 1994 book by Peter Ackroyd, is very much in line with the prolific writer’s oeuvre to date. Goldman is the woman behind much of Matthew Vaughn’s work – so, of course, time is non-linear here – The Woman in Black – a similarly toned horror – and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – a film of corresponding predictability. In spite of many attempts to surprise with twists and turns in the plot, very few of these actually do.
There’s also a sense here that The Limehouse Golem isn’t quite cinematic. Adopting a music hall demeanour and cast largely known for television work (Nighy excepted), the film could quite easily be mistaken for a miniseries. It is certainly styled on a televisual landscape; somewhere between Ripper Street, Midsomer Murders and Jonathan Creek.
It feels inappropriate to describe a film which features prominent, gruesome displays of, truly sickening, murders as good fun, yet that’s essentially what it is. A Rickman-led version of the film may have been very different, but here Nighy brings a warmth of character and sense of humour to the grim plot, aided by a script of surprising comic capability.
Don’t expect a light touch though, The Limehouse Golem exists wholly within the gaseous murk of its dark London dwelling.