One of the brashest, most gorgeous-looking films of this year is UK effort The Limehouse Golem (2016). Part horror thriller and part period-piece police procedural, the entertainment value runs high in this film, both when it is working at dazzling heights and when it occasionally misses the mark. When the latter happens, the film is still a joy to experience for its oddity and bravado.
The dizzying star power alone in this Victorian-era–set chiller is enough to warrant interest. Olivia Cooke, Bill Nighy, Douglas Booth, and Eddie Marsan head up a large cast and throw everything into their performances. Director Juan Carlos Medina seems occasionally hampered by having too many ideas in the screenplay to juggle and then make sense of, but he keeps the proceedings interesting throughout, and cinematographer Simon Dennis (The Girl with All the Gifts, UK/USA, 2016) aids the goings-on tremendously.
Cooke (Ouija, US, 2014; the Bates Motel television series, US, 2013–2017), in perhaps her best performance so far, stars as Lizzie Cree, a strong young woman who built herself up from a poverty-ridden, abusive childhood to become the most renowned actress in London’s music halls. She sits in a prison awaiting hanging, accused of her would-be playwright husband John’s (Sam Reid) murder. Nighy portrays John Kildare, an inspector who is thrown to the wolves in an ongoing investigation into a series of savage slayings in the seedy Limehouse district of the city.
Following a theory that these murders may be the work of a serial killer who struck many decades earlier (the story takes place before the era of Jack the Ripper), Kildare begins to believe that John Cree may have been a victim of the titular murderer, and tries to clear Lizzie of the crime. Booth plays Dan Leno, a real-life music hall star of the era, in an outstanding turn that borders on a fine line between camp and arch — actually, that balancing act can be said for the whole of The Limehouse Golem. He helps Lizzie along on her path from being a backstage presence to a potential star. Marsan chews a bit of scenery in parts with his bald-capped, tattooed portrayal of Uncle, a part of Leno’s performing troupe circle, including one of the film’s most eye-opening scenes.
The Limehouse Golem is a murder mystery procedural drenched in Hammer Film Productions–homage trappings. Some viewers may be well ahead of Inspector Kildare in his unmasking of the killer, but it is still fun watching him get there. The film is an unapologetic mash-up of melodrama, gory slayings and their aftermaths, music hall numbers, costume drama, and other odd bedfellows. Moments of subtlety and pathos share screen time with the makeup-smearing shedding of tears and wide-eyed psychotic breaks.
The screenplay, adapted by genre Jane Goldman from the 1994 novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, certainly throws more than its fair share of ideas on the screen, sometimes leaving them to little more than a mention of something and then addressing it later in what might seem as a mere afterthought. For example, some characters allude to the possibility of Kildare’s homosexuality, but this angle is never really addressed again on any level other than a passing one. Similarly, the idea of having historical figures like Karl Marx as murder suspects here feels like something between a lark and a droll approach to red herrings. Perhaps some ideas may have been lost in translation from source to screen, or rushed too much in that department.
Having stayed pretty much under the radar during and since its film festival screenings, The Limehouse Golem should find a deservedly larger audience with its wide release this week. It’s certain to be a divisive film, but I was always entertained while watching it, if for varying reasons, and I encourage curious potential viewers to see it and judge for themselves.
Rating: 3.5/5 stars