Imagine, if you will, Bill Nighy in a frock coat and spotted necktie, stalking the gaslit streets on the trail of a serial killer in 1880s Victorian London. No, not that serial killer – a few years earlier, and a slightly eastward shift in geography to the seedy Limehouse district, and you’ll find the “Golem”, named after a beast from Jewish folklore. This new old-timey whodunit is directed by Juan Carlos Medina, based on a 1994 novel by Peter Ackroyd, and has been adapted for the screen by Jane Goldman with a thick smattering of atmosphere and a fair helping of stupidity.
Nighy plays Inspector Kildare, a Scotland Yard investigator whose career has been held back thanks to rumours of him not being “the marrying kind.” A rumoured-to-be gay man seems as good a scapegoat as any for a seemingly unsolvable string of apparently-unrelated murders in the East End, but Kildare doesn’t seem keen on being anyone’s fall guy. A lead takes him to the British Library, where the killer has scrawled tantalising accounts of their crimes in Thomas De Quincy’s satirical writings on the Ratcliffe Highway murders. In the frame are four suspects: novelist George Gissing (Morgan Watkins), philosopher Karl Marx (Henry Goodman), celebrated comic Dan Leno (Douglas Booth), and a failed playwright named John Cree (Sam Reid), who’s currently lying in the morgue after being recently poisoned, much to the dismay of his wife, Elizabeth (Olivia Cooke), who seems most likely to be hung for the crime – guilty of it or not.
Lizzie is a star of the music halls, a fascinatingly androgynous world where most of the film takes place. That fluid line between male and female also runs through notions of fact and fiction, reality and performance, past and present. Through unreliable flashbacks and other speculative framing devices that variously imagine each suspect as the maniac, The Limehouse Golem filters the killer’s ritualistic slayings through layers of artifice. The structure is messy, and the stylistic choices – warm colours in the theatre, misty gloom in the streets, and desaturation in the courtrooms – are of wavering effectiveness, but they’re cinematic sleight of hand to distract from the mystery really being no mystery at all. The culprit’s identity is so obvious for so long that it might as well have been revealed at the beginning.
Nighy is poised as the rakish, dapper detective, but Kildare is only an outline of a character. What a great one he might have been – a principled detective wronged by his colleagues and haunted by his private life, doomed to comb courteously among the grimy cobbles of London’s murkiest corners. As it stands, he’s reduced to little more than a storytelling device, as his frequent visits to Lizzie’s spacious cell prompt reminiscing that takes us through the music halls where she went from dogsbody to star to the arms of her ill-fated – and possibly murderous – husband.
The film is at its best in these gaudy slices of Victorian nightlife, where it takes as much pleasure in the soapy backstage goings-on as it does in the theatricality of the Golem’s murders. The bawdy songs and off-colour jokes are in the same mode of energetic performance as a victim being sawed-up and arranged – head on the altar, limbs and torso on the pews – as though giving a grim sermon. It’s all about the art. There’s an audience for everything.
This translates to a handsome film, one steeped in period detail and atmosphere, but not a particularly effective murder-mystery. The role of Kildare was originally to have been played by Alan Rickman, who died last year. Imagining his undoubtedly more insidious detective seems in-keeping with The Limehouse Golem’s penchant for flights of fancy. That he’d have likely been suspected for the crimes he was tasked with solving might have made this film as tense and compelling as it believes itself to be.
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