Set in Victorian East London where an uncanny sense of malevolence swirls through the sooty fog, thriller The Limehouse Golem has the whiff of misfortune about it. Long in development by producer Stephen Woolley, along the way the project lost its original director (Woolley’s longtime collaborator Neil Jordan) as well as its leading man. Alan Rickman was cast as the lead but had to step down due to terminal illness, and the role was taken over by Bill Nighy. In the end, this gory, manic period piece, based on a 1994 novel (Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem) by Peter Ackroyd, just about comes together under the ragged direction of Juan Carlos Medina.
Nevertheless, one can’t help thinking the excessively dense material adapted by Jane Goldman (scribe for Kick-Ass and the last couple of X-Men films) would have been much better served if it had been allowed to breathe as a multi-part drama for TV or subscription service. As a feature, the flaws are too apparent, although it might yet accrue a cult following in the long run.
The plot is thickly encrusted with an appropriately Victorian clutter of subplots, digressions and red-herring guest appearances by real historical figures like Karl Marx and novelist George Gissing (played by Henry Goodman and Morgan Watkins, respectively). But under all that bric-a-brac, it’s just about possible to discern a compelling thematic throughline about the 19th century’s Madonna-whore models of femininity and equally confused attitude towards all things Other, from immigrants and the working class to gay people.
Although protagonist Inspector Kildare (Nighy) represents the law of the land, it seems whispers about his sexuality have blighted his career, preventing him from ascending to the ranks his intellect would merit. This gives him sympathy for another outsider, working-class-born music hall performer Lizzie Cree (an increasingly impressive Olivia Cooke, also in Toronto with Katie Says Goodbye). She stands accused of murdering her husband John Cree (Sam Reid), but the dead man may or may not have been a serial killer himself, guilty of a series of strange, brutal killings across the East End neighborhood of Limehouse. Because one of the victims was a Jewish Talmudic scholar studying the legend of the Golem — a magical clay automaton said to be built by the Jews of Prague to protect them from anti-Semitic attacks — the killer comes to be known as the Limehouse Golem.
Via flashback interviews with Lizzie in prison and further investigation, Kildare narrows down the list of suspects to one of four people studying in the British Library’s reading room. (Sadly, the iconic original reading room at the British Museum was remodeled recently, so a church has been unconvincingly set-dressed to serve for the flashbacks.)
But the gristly killings are only part of the budget panoramic view offered here of pre-Jack the Ripper London. Much of Lizzie’s story involves the tale of her ascent from the lowliest of origins to her ascension to stardom in the music hall scene under emcee-impresario Dan Leno (Douglas Booth, badly miscast), another real historical figure. Assorted colorful characters — and potential suspects — fill out the cast, including stage manager Uncle (Eddie Marsan in a latex head piece to make him look bald), lascivious little person Little Victor (Graham Hughes), and acrobat Aveline Ortega (Maria Valverde), a diva with a jealous streak as green as her emerald-hued costume.
When described, that all sounds like it might be a lot of malevolent quasi-steampunk fun, but in practice the film feels clotted, clumsy and altogether unsatisfactory. The music hall sequences fall especially flat, and fail to suggest to a contemporary audience how this scene was a vital part of daily life at the time. Cooke, at least, provides a bit of electrification amongst the gaslight, especially among the Sturm und Drang of the final scene. By way of contrast Nighy dials down much of his usual mannerisms and delivers a quietly effective performance, one of his best in years while Daniel Mays provides pleasant comic relief as a beat cop giving assist.
Production companies: A New Sparta Films presentation in association with HanWay Films, LipSync and Day Tripper Films of a Stephen Woolley, Elizabeth Karlsen, Number 9 Films production
Cast: Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke, Sam Reid, Maria Valverde, Daniel Mays, Douglas Booth, Eddie Marsan, Ameila Crouch, Henry Goodman, Morgan Watkins
Director: Juan Carlos Medina
Screenwriter: Jane Goldman, based on a novel by Peter Ackroyd
Producers: Elizabeth Karlsen, Joanna Laurie, Stephen Woolley
Executive producers: Peter Hampden, Nicki Hattingh, Norman Merry, Anne Sheehan, Christopher Simon, Zygi Kamasa
Director of photography: Simon Dennis
Production designer: Grant Montgomery
Costume designer: Claire Anderson
Editor: Justin Krish
Music: Johan Soderqvist
Visual effects supervisor: Sheila Wickens
Casting: Olivia Scott-Webb
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentation)