Bill Nighy and Olivia Cooke shine in this bloody thriller
The Limehouse Golem: Folklore and murder mix with a twist in Victorian London
Juan Carlos Medina’s The Limehouse Golem, based on Peter Ackroyd’s 1994 novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, whisks us back to Victorian-era London, where a particularly grisly string of killings is in progress thanks to a serial killer who fashions himself on the mythical golem of Jewish folklore.
Bill Nighy cements his position as go-to actor when a curmudgeonly Brit with a highly recognisable face is required – a position he previously had to share with the late Alan Rickman, whom he replaced in this movie when Rickman was forced to stand down due to ill health (the film is dedicated to the departed star). He plays Inspector Kildare of Scotland Yard. Officially, he is charged with solving the case, though in reality, he is drafted in as a stooge to replace the Yard’s star detective. The police have no clues as to the killer’s identity. And having faced scandal in his personal life in the past, Kildare is expendable in the face of a baying press and public.
The movie takes us on an atmospheric journey through the streets and music halls of Victorian London, intriguingly blending fact and fiction as it goes – the Golem is fictional (though has more than a hint of Jack the Ripper about him), but music-hall star and key suspect Dan Leno (Douglas Booth) is a real historical character, and how many times have you seen Karl Marx cast as a suspect in a penny-dreadful thriller?
Kildare has four suspects, and the prime one, failed playwright John Cree (Sam Reid), just died. To complicate matters, the dead man’s wife, music-hall star Little Lizzie (Olivia Cooke), seems to hold the key to the murders. But she is in prison accused of murdering her late husband. Kildare faces a race against time to identify the murderer and prove Lizzie’s innocence before she is sent to the gallows.
The movie splits into two main, intersecting narrative strands – Kildare’s investigation and the backstory of how Lizzie went from abused child to penniless orphan to music-hall sensation, crossing paths with some of the key suspects in the process. The music-hall scenes offer some light relief among gruesome murders, but also allow the scenes on stage to imitate those in the outside world, with Grand Guignol-esque interpretations of the murders and Lizzie’s life adding an extra layer of storytelling among bawdy songs and corny gags.
Nighy can always be relied on to bring an element of humour to the darkest tale, and though The Limehouse Golem plays it straight, there is always a sense that it is simultaneously poking fun at the pulp-fiction nature of the story. Cooke has us rooting for Lizzie, too, as we learn of her traumatic life of abuse and neglect, and a strong, uncredited character can be found in the atmosphere-charged Victorian city itself, with locations and costumes impressively recreated on a limited budget, complete with smog, grime and urchins.
The twists and turns aren’t quite of Sherlock proportions, but then Kildare’s flawed detective isn’t a mystery solver of Holmes proportions – he has to be guided by hand to the final revelation, as the film offers a perfectly engaging journey, with a delightfully unexpected final twist-within-a-twist.
The Limehouse Golem is in cinemas across the UAE from this weekend