Limehouse. 1880. After a series of increasingly horrific murders, although each one as grotesque in its own way, Inspector John Kildare (Nighy) is called to lead the investigation. It’s a job that he’s been set up to fail in, no-one else has been able to crack it and his being assigned it is only as a means to get rid of him. A once greatly admired and respected police officer, rumours that he is ‘not being of the marrying kind’ have tarnished his reputation completely. However when a death occurs in suspicious circumstances, John Cree (Reid) is a poisoned reporter is found by his music hall actress wife Elizabeth (Cooke) , provides a new angle of the sensational tale of The Limehouse Golem, a man whose macrable deeds have been scandalizing and titillating London in equal measure.
It’s probably unlikely that any member of the cinema-going public has thought, ‘You know what? We need another Victorian-set murder mystery about a serial killer who murders prostitutes.’ Surprisingly, and thankfully, Limehouse Golem ends up becoming the film you didn’t know you wanted yet are so glad to have received. It’s perfectly pitched, with a tongue ever-so-slightly in cheek. London is murky, the murders are gruesome, the police are determined and the suspects tell veiled tales that may or may not be the truth. It ends up being fun, not of the ha-ha kind, but the suspenseful kind of fun of being tangled in a mystery you can’t quite work out when you have your suspicious which seem altered by each new revelation. There are a couple of gags along the way, not enough to take away from the tension and drama but gallows humour of varying quality.
Not every twist or turn is completely satisfying, although the batting average is mostly successful there are a few dud moments along the way. However it’s the performances that prevent the film from falling into these could-have-been pitfalls. It takes total commitment from an actor to utter lines such as ‘wasting my time could cost lives’ and ‘even madness has its own logic’ with a straight face and still seem believable to the extent Nighy does. He looks the part, like someone out of a Victorian portrait, and acts it too. In a tale told through flashbacks and occasional re-stagings he’s constant throughout as he scrutinizes his way to find out the truth.
His motivation to solve the case and save his career is secondary to his desire to save Elizabeth, who is on trial for the murder of her husband – should she be convicted then a death sentence would be certain. It could have been an all-too familiar trope of the man saving woman, but this is elevated from cliche two-fold. First there’s the nature of their rapport, Nighy and Cooke bounce off each other and feels totally believable. Then there’s the character of Elizabeth herself, the characterisation and performance both allow for Elizabeth to feel like an uncommon kind of female Victorian kind of character. She’s given a heartfelt back story, given motivations and meaning, and as such is more constructed then many other female characters in Victorian-set dramas. She’s not just a victim or damsel-in-distress, and Kildare is the most recent in a line of many men of have attempted to rescue her in different ways.
But for Elizabeth it was acting that saved her, a job backstage at the Palace Music Hall eventually led to success on the stage itself. All of the sequences at the music hall are filled with colour, delights and warmth; a refuge from the fog and danger filled London streets. What could have been an amusing-enough generic thriller becomes something more, something with unexpected depth. Along the way the identity of The Limehouse Golem isn’t the only thing being investigated – there’s the conflicting natures of fantasy & reality, the parallels between art & murder and the difference between escape and rescue – much of it echoed by Nighy through thoughtful proclamations. What more could you ask for..?
The Limehouse Golem opens in UK cinemas on 1st September.
Dir: Juan Carlos Medina
Scr: Peter Ackroyd (novel) Jane Goldman (screenplay)
Cast: Olivia Cooke, Bill Nighy, Eddie Marsan, Douglas Booth, María Valverde, Sam Reid, Daniel Mays.
Prd: Elizabeth Karlsen, Joanna Laurie, Stephen Woolley
DOP: Simon Dennis
Music: Johan Söderqvist
Run time: 109 minutes