A hub of art, of commerce, of politics, of travellers and migrants, of explorers and those running from their past, London has always been a focus for those seeking to make their fortune and fame or seeking to take the easy route, robbing and murdering others for what little they may possess, and by the fogbound Thames the Limehouse Golem haunts the docks by twilight and gaslight, so named by the gutter press only too happy to splash in the bloodied puddles.
Based on Peter Ackroyd’s 1994 novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, adapted by Kingsman‘s Jane Goldman and masterfully orchestrated by Painless director Juan Carlos Medina, like From Hell and its hypothetical unmasking of Jack the Ripper, The Limehouse Golem is an alternate history set tying together three personages of note from that period, the political writer Karl Marx, the novelist George Gissing and the music hall performer Dan Leno, setting them against a fictional murder mystery.
The year is 1880 and West End darling of the music halls Elizabeth Cree (The Quiet Ones‘ Olivia Cooke) stands accused of murder, her reporter turned failed playwright husband John Cree (The Riot Club‘s Sam Reid) poisoned by the nightly draught which she prepares. She maintains her innocence, but despite his fluctuating moods and despondency there was no suicide note, all his papers burned.
That domestic incident a far cry from the slaughter performed by the Limehouse Golem, five dead already, that case is a poisoned chalice which has been handed to the unpopular Inspector John Kildare (The World’s End‘s Bill Nighy), his superiors anticipating that his failure to solve it will allow them to be rid of his inconvenient presence on the force and the unwholesome rumours which follow him.
An era before forensics, the house alive with reporters and gawkers who trample through the bloody footprints, the pale light seeping through the cracks in the curtains just enough to count the mutilated bodies, there is no connection or profile on these or the previous victims, men, women, young, old, Jew and Christian, but following the sparse leads takes Kildare to the house of John Cree, a prime suspect already dead.
Set almost ten years before Sherlock Holmes first arrived in print, the approach of Inspector Kildare is methodical and impartial (“It’s not my place to have an opinion, I just follow the threads”) and with tall ships on the river and Big Ben under the moonlit fog London lends itself well to this, but the structure of the plot owes as much to modern fiction, a serial killer whose modus operandi and chronicling of their crimes in a defaced library book speaks more of Seven.
Contrasting the grim reality of the streets is the life, light and colour of the music hall where Lizzie learned to be a star and Dan (Jupiter Ascending‘s Douglas Booth) performs his drag act of a beaten woman’s revenge on her husband, but with a cast-off dress connecting him to one of the victims he is also a suspect, and with the theatre awash with rivalry and jealousy every witness has advantage to push in their testimony.
The audience coming midway to the investigation as does Kildare, Nighy is reliably dour as he pieces the jigsaw together even as the expected tropes are ticked off from opium dens to orphaned urchins in a film which requires the viewer to pay constant attention without accepting anything at face value, and while Daniel Mays’ Constable George Flood is underused in a strictly supporting role begging for expansion the ensemble are perfectly cast in what is a worthy addition to the roster for those who enjoy Holmes, Ripper Street and their sinister ilk.
The Limehouse Golem is currently on general release