A murderer is stalking the streets of Limehouse in Victorian London, killing viciously and spreading panic. The killer has become known as the Limehouse Golem; named after the medieval Jewish monster made of clay. Police Inspector John Kildare (Bill Nighy) is brought in to investigate, soon coming to wonder whether the killer is the recently deceased John Cree (Sam Reid).
This line of questioning introduces him to Cree’s wife, Lizzie (Olivia Cooke), as well as the world of the music hall theatre she used to work at, which is led by cross-dressing comedy star Dan Leno (Douglas Booth). The number of potential suspects continues to grow – at one point even leading Kildare to the door of Karl Marx – especially after the discovery of a book that may be the murderer’s diary. But who wrote it and why?
The Limehouse Golem is one of those films that’s close to being great, but from the title – which sounds too much like a fantasy film – to the slightly sloppy way it handles some key aspects of the investigation, there’s a sense that things haven’t been thought through as much as they should have. Director Juan Carlos Medina does a good job with the individual pieces of this murder mystery puzzle, but those pieces never fully coalesce in the way they ought to.
That’s not to say it’s a bad film. The performances are great, with Bill Nighy turning in a strong central performance as the put-upon Kildare, while Olivia Cooke handles the complex role of Lizzie Cree extremely well, especially towards the end. It’s also good to see Douglas Booth really sinking his teeth into a role. In some movies it’s felt he’s mainly been there to be pretty, but here he brings a nice theatricality and hint of menace to real-life music hall star, Dan Leno.
The movie also has a good ending, as even if you figure out where it’s heading it’s nicely handled and retains tension thanks to not just being about who the killer is, but what Kildare is going to do about. However, it’s not quite the crescendo it could have been if what led up to it had pulled together better.
What’s also intriguing – and still unusual – is that several of the lead characters may be LGBT. As it’s set in Victorian times, no one comes right out and says it, but there are hints towards the fact Dan Leno, Lizzie, Kildare and his sergeant, George Flood (Daniel Mays), are probably not straight. Some viewers will undoubtedly feel frustrated by the fact that none of this is ever fully resolved, and the film does sometimes feel like it’s being more squeamish about this than it needs to be, especially as hidden sexualities is thematically important to the movie. Even so it’s unusual for a mainstream movie to be based around so many potentially LGBT characters, from Kildare – whose career was derailed by possibly true insinuations he liked men – to the potentially asexual (or lesbian) Lizzie. It’s just a shame it couldn’t be a little more upfront about it.
Overall Verdict: The Limehouse Golem is close to being a great slice of Victorian murder mystery, but its ingredients – from the direction to the way it handles the sexuality of its characters – don’t quite come together in the way they might have.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac