Directed by Juan Carlos Medina | Written by Jane Goldman, adapting a novel by Peter Ackroyd | 109 min
Victorian London. There’s a serial killer about. It’s not Bloody Jack, but someone just as twisted and vicious, fond of ending the lives of the poorest denizens of East London with a blade. Enter John Kildare (Bill Nighy), an aging investigator brought in from the sticks to detect the identity of the killer—calling himself the Golem in a diary left behind—though Kildare’s maybe being set up to fail. “London’s appetite for horror knows no bounds,” he remarks. While all this is going on, a young, aspiring thespian, Lizzee Cree (Olivia Cooke), is accused of poisoning her husband, who, it turns out, was a suspect in the Golem case.
This is a tawdry but entertaining Victorian procedural, well-appointed and shadowy, a possible salve for anyone missing Penny Dreadful or Peaky Blinders or even those (like me) still upset that the film adaptations of Alan Moore’s graphic novels The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen and From Hell were such disasters.
Nighy is well-suited for this material—gnashy, grim, and slightly haunted—and even when the film’s pulpy spirit threatens to overwhelm the proceedings, he keeps it grounded in the authenticity of his performance. His Kildare has a secret of his own, his sexuality. His struggle to retain his dignity in light of nasty rumours helps distinguish the material with a little contemporary relevance, and with support from Daniel Mays as his co-detective, Flood, there’s a compelling Holmes/Watson vibe going on here.
The film’s at its weakest in too-long flashbacks to Mrs Cree’s past in London music halls, and her connection with theatrical sensation Dan Leno (the suddenly ubiquitous but uninteresting Douglas Booth), how she met her husband (Sam Reid) and sparred with theatre manager Uncle (Eddie Marsan) and the nasty acrobat, Aveline (Maria Valverde). A good 15 minutes of that stuff could’ve been trimmed. The weird thing is how as Kildare stalks various suspects through London, the film depicts each of them going through the steps of a murder, speaking the murderer’s words from the diary while Kildare absolves them. This includes, believe it or not, history’s most unlikely murder suspect, Karl Marx. It’s as if we’re looking inside Kildare’s head in the midst of a Will Graham-like trance, though it’s a strange and repetitive storytelling technique, not entirely successful.
I recommend The Limehouse Golem to fans of a certain kind of Victorian, steampunk horror, and for some of its creative directorial choices. It’s dark and messy, but you can’t help but admire its ambition.