D: Juan Carlos Medina / 109m
Cast: Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke, Douglas Booth, Daniel Mays, Sam Reid, María Valverde, Eddie Marsan, Henry Goodman, Morgan Watkins
A music hall comedian and musical theatre actor. A Prussian-born philosopher. An English novelist. And an aspiring playwright. All four of them men, and all four suspected of being the infamous Limehouse Golem, a murderer whose latest outrage has claimed the lives of an entire family and their maid. Which of these four men – Dan Leno (Booth), Karl Marx (Goodman), George Gissing (Watkins), and John Cree (Reid) – is the crazed, psychopathic killer, and why?
It’s a measure of the confidence that screenwriter Jane Goldman (adapting Peter Ackroyd’s novel, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem) has in the material that she keeps this central conceit ticking along for so long, because if you stopped to think about it for more than a cursory second, then said conceit would crumble to dust before your eyes. Ackroyd may have presented his story in better ways on the page, but Goldman is hampered by the requirements of a movie interpretation, and the scenes where the murders are re-enacted from the viewpoint of each suspect in turn leads to some very awkward moments indeed. The sight of Karl Marx – a bushy bearded Goodman – acting violently makes for one of the most inappropriately amusing murder scenes in recent cinema history. And the same can be said of Gissing’s turn behind the knife. Leno fares slightly better but that’s mostly thanks to Booth’s florid turn as the theatrical maestro, while Cree, this movie’s Most Likely does mentally unbalanced with too much glee to be even considered as the Golem. So with each of the suspects lacking that certain murderous je ne sais quoi, what’s a mystery thriller meant to do?
The answer is to focus instead on Cree’s wife, Lizzie (Cooke), a member of Leno’s troupe, and soon on trial for poisoning her husband. Cree’s death doesn’t immediately rule him out of being the Golem, but it does prompt Inspector John Kildare (Nighy) to attempt to kill two birds with one stone: to prove that Cree was the Golem, and in doing so, provide his wife with a motive for killing him that would make her a heroine and see her avoid the gallows. Aided by Constable George Flood (Mays), Kildare follows a clue left by the Golem at a murder scene to the British Library and a book by Thomas de Quincey that contains a diary written by the Golem within its pages. With only the four men mentioned above having had access to the book on the day of its last entry, Kildare sets about obtaining samples of the men’s handwriting in an effort to eliminate/incriminate them. Leno, Marx and Gissing are soon ruled out, but Cree’s death remains an obstacle to the truth: before he died he burnt all his personal papers.
With all this investigative work going on, and grisly accountings of the murders punctuating the narrative to boot, the movie recounts Lizzie’s life from sexually abused pre-teen to orphan to theatrical protegé to music hall star. It feels like a soap opera tale given a grim Victorian veneer, and takes up too much of the movie’s run time. For long stretches it’s Lizzie’s back story at the forefront of the material, and the search for the Golem is left feeling as if it’s been relegated to second place, a position that doesn’t feel right for the story or the overall structure. Allied with a number of scenes that see Kildare visiting Lizzie in prison and reassuring her all will be well, the mystery elements are forced to take a back seat as Kildare pursues his twin aims, all of which is likely to lead some viewers into construing that his visits are indicative of some burgeoning romance (Kildare is conscientious it’s true, but nothing fully explains his obsessive determination to save Lizzie from certain death). But wait, Kildare isn’t “interested” in women, he follows another persuasion, a detail the script brings up every now and then in a misguided attempt at adding depth to the character, and which only prompts Flood to reveal his own “interests” in a scene that is as awkwardly written as it is played out.
Lizzie’s theatrical experiences are used as a backdrop for the rise of the Golem, and there are plenty of clues dropped along the way as to the murderer’s identity (fans of this sort of thing will have no problem working out the whodunnit aspect of things). Along the way there are also several music hall interludes, and back stage confrontations, that help to throw suspicion on Leno and Cree respectively, but in an effort to stretch the material even further, there are minor sub-plots that add little to the larger storyline, and by the time the murderer’s identity is revealed, a certain amount of ennui has settled in as scenes are recycled or repeated without adding anything new or relevant to the proceedings. Even the murders themselves, touted as grisly and shocking, prove unambitious in their execution (excuse the pun), and a number of incidental deaths prove equally uninspired (and more than a little predictable).
That said, there are some good performances to be had, with Nighy putting aside all the tics and pauses that usually make up one of his portrayals (and subbing for a too ill to take part Alan Rickman), while Booth (who just keeps getting better and better) is on formidable form as Leno, imbuing the character with a melancholy nature off stage that is at odds with his more ebullient and public persona on stage. Marsan is good value as always as a senior member of Leno’s troupe, Reid plays the anger-driven Cree with a fierce passion, but Mays looks out of place, and Cooke does her best with a role that should be more sympathetic than it actually is, and which suffers from having too much attention focused on it. Medina organises everything in a frustratingly direct manner, with too many scenes and developments lacking the necessary impact, and though he has fine support from the likes of cinematographer Simon Dennis, production designer Grant Montgomery, and costume designer Claire Anderson, it’s not enough for the movie to look good when it doesn’t always feel right.
Rating: 6/10 – a mixed bag overall, The Limehouse Golem captures the squalid nature of the Victorian era with aplomb and sets up its central storyline well, but dials down on the melodrama and the lurid nature of the Golem’s activities; perfectly acceptable then in a “what to watch on a Sunday evening” kind of way, but not quite as formidable in its approach as it needed to be.