Victorian London has been an effective setting since virtually the beginning of cinema, perhaps unsurprisingly since it was during this period that moving pictures first appeared. From the first adaptation of “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” to Basil Rathbone’s incarnation of “Sherlock Holmes,” from Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lodger” to Johnny Depp’s accented turns in “From Hell” and “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” the gloomy milieu of London in the late 19th century is a stimulant to the imagination, a fetid, suffusive environment where all manner of humanity and inhumanity can reside and lurk. Juan Carlos Medina’s The Limehouse Golem, adapted by Jane Goldman from the novel by Peter Ackroyd, joins this proud tradition with an appropriately stylized metropolis that juxtaposes well-appointed houses, courtrooms and police stations with narrow alleys, gloomy docks, looming buildings and, as its centerpiece, an intricate theater in the eponymous district of Limehouse, its labyrinthine structure mirroring both the story and the storytelling. The Limehouse Golem builds on this promising set-up to deliver a mystery thriller that neatly balances character arcs, social commentary and effectively bloody set pieces.
Beginning with the possible suicide/possible murder of writer John Cree (Sam Reid, “’71”) and the subsequent arrest of his wife and star on the London stage Lizzie (Olivia Cooke, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”), the viewer is quickly immersed in the familiar Victorian tropes of constrictive dresses, flapping cloaks and hansom cabs rattling through cobbled streets. One such cab arrives at the scene of the latest in a series of grisly murders, made all the worse by the killer’s messages that taunt the police and the public, who have already dubbed this murderer the Limehouse Golem due to the seemingly supernatural savagery of the deaths. Inspector John Kildare (Bill Nighy, “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”) is assigned the case by his superiors at the Metropolitan Police on the understanding that it will either make him or break him. Kildare’s investigation, enthusiastically aided by Sergeant Flood (Daniel Mays, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”), brings him into contact with an array of suspicious characters, as he becomes convinced that the Golem and Cree cases are connected.
The colorful cavalcade of suspects straddles London society, including learned men learning more in the reading room of the British Museum, as well as the performers of the Limehouse including theater performer Dan Leno (Douglas Booth, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”), gymnast/maid to the Crees Aveline Ortega (María Valverde, “Exodus: Gods and Kings”) and theater proprietor Uncle (Eddie Marsan, “Filth”), along with others. Otherness and theatricality imbue all these characters: Dan frequently playing women (whether as comedy or tragedy depends on perspective); Aveline playing up the stereotypical features of her profession(s) and nationality (French maid, being like that? Shocking!), and Uncle revealing interesting designs both upon his body and elsewhere. This overt performativity adds to the film’s ripeness, which combined with the stylized setting and lurid subject matter could tip the film into pantomime territory.
The Limehouse Golem avoids being overdone, however, partly through its narrative structure, in which these potential caricatures are often themselves characters within Lizzie’s flashbacks, their presentation carefully filtered through someone who is herself constantly performing. Therefore, the campness and theatricality are part of the stories within the overall story. In addition, a strong sense of melancholy stops the film from sliding too far into melodrama, largely because of the central characters. Cast as the protagonist in different dramas by herself and others, Lizzie is presented as both victim and villain, and Olivia Cooke persuasively negotiates the transition from star struck ingénue to performance entrepreneur to victim trapped and harangued on all sides. Her only ally, it seems, is another person with roles imposed upon him. As Kildare, Bill Nighy provides a melancholy weight to the events, his hangdog expression but undeniable passion adding a sober gravitas. Even before he is assigned the case, Kildare is a pariah in the London Met, a man of senior years whose career has stagnated due to a scandal unrelated to his evident investigative skills.
Both Lizzie’s story and Kildare’s investigation are explorations of outsiderdom: The performers confined to the Limehouse Music Hall; Kildare and Flood isolated by their sexuality; Lizzie victimized by her mother, fellow performers, husband and the prosecution, both the snarling barrister who assassinates her character so as to cast her as guilty and the public who mock and deride her in this role. The film’s conceit of roles, casting and performance persists with Kildare’s mental reconstructions of the murders, based on a diary that he finds, apparently written by the Golem. As Kildare imagines the events described in the diary, Medina shifts the image to present various suspects perpetrating and narrating their crimes. These performances within performances feature distorted voiceover as well as hyper-stylized visuals of the violent murders. These effects shots again add to the film’s melodramatic ripeness, as everyone is performing some sort of role, be it theatrical or societal.
There is much pleasure to be had in the dramatic construction here, but the film also manages to do what many a fine genre film does — include some social commentary, as the film weaves a discussion about hegemony and heteronormativity into its gripping story. Lizzie explicitly states that women must play the roles expected of them all the time, and her verbal duels with Kildare not only provide drama within the narrative, but also further food for thought. Kildare’s contempt for the newspapers’ view of Lizzie aligns the viewer with her perspective as well as his, prompting the viewer to inquire why ARE certain demographics cast in particular lights? John Cree often appears as a disreputable piece of work, while Karl Marx (Henry Goodman) espouses on social prejudices and proletariat concerns (as you might expect). Kildare’s other suspects also highlight marginalized groups within the society of the film, and the cumulative effect of these various voices disrupts any sense of normalcy. Crucially, this is never done in a cruel way — the viewer is not treated to a freak show so much as a collection of sad stories, filled with angry but ambitious and committed people.
The Limehouse Golem therefore offers something for everyone — social commentary and wider issues to ponder if the viewer wishes, but even without that it is an atmospheric, twisty and at times shocking tale of murder and malevolence on both the micro and macro scale. It is a smart and stylish thriller, with more than enough intellectual meat on its bones to sink one’s teeth (or knife) into.