Victorian London has been shaken up by a series of gruesome murders in Limehouse, the culprit dubbed ‘The Limehouse Golem’ by the press. John Kildare (Bill Nighy), a disgraced inspector, is assigned the case due to its previous detective seeing it as unsolvable and wanting to save face. Finding a diary in the London public library written by the Golem, Kildare narrows his search down to four suspects: Dan Leno (Douglas Booth), Karl Marx (Henry Goodman), George Gissing (Morgan Watkins) and John Cree (Sam Reid). The latter had been recently murdered, his wife Elizabeth (Olivia Cooke) believed to be his killer. As we explore Elizabeth’s past, her marriage and her working relationship with Dan Leno (they were both successful stage comics), Kildare desperately tries to narrow down the suspects, prove John Cree was the murderer and save Elizabeth from being hanged.
The Limehouse Golem is a gothic horror reminiscent of Crimson Horror and Sweeney Todd. The latter of which starred the late, great Alan Rickman, who was signed to star in this until his illness forced him to depart the role, the film is dedicated in his memory. While Nighy was a worthy successor to the role, Rickman’s presence was sorely missed in what may have been his final movie had he been well enough to act in it. it’s a shame, then, from poor marketing, that this seems to have been overlooked and dismissed, as it’s a very wonderful little movie with a lot on its plate.
To start off, while it’s a mystery in the vain of a gritty Holmesian affair, that is not the main priority. Instead, it chooses to look at its real star, and that is Elizabeth Cree played excellently by Olivia Cooke. The exploration of identity and judgement in the Victorian life is juxtaposed by the brainless public eating up the macabre with fascination. It is adapted from a novel called Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, which is a historical fiction book that incorporated the real life entertainer into its plot. The titular character embraces this fascination and incorporates it into his performance, quite similarly to how we tend to do the same to our own shocking and salacious stories whilst judging the lifestyles of others who do not meet our standards.
Indeed, it is that dichotomy that really fuels the story, with Dan and Elisabeth being acknowledged as showpeople only respected as tools of entertainment and never for people in their own right. It’s the only way Elizabeth can find any sort of acceptance after being born from an unwed mother. Dan Leno is all too cynically aware of this, reflecting his real life counterpart who died frustrated that he was never more than a comic performer to people and has been largely forgotten in the annals of history.
It’s an excellent skewering of societal acceptance versus how they try to forge you. This is even shown in Kildare and John’s relationships with Elizabeth: the former trying to save her due to empathising with her life, having been shunned for rumours of homosexuality, the latter trying to save her by making him his wife and growing annoyed that she wasn’t exactly the way he wanted.
Outside of its thematically layered script, it’s just a really fun romp! We’re shown Kildare mapping out exactly how the killer may have done it when he gets suspects to read his extracts, which adds a bit of gratuitous gore to the proceedings, and gives us the amazing image of Karl Marx decapitating a prostitute and mounting her head on a spike. The characters are extremely likeable and all well-developed. Olivia Cooke steals every scene she is in, but the movie has great turns from Nighy, Booth and Eddie Marsan. While the set design goes more for panto theatrics than photo realism, it does capture the feel and mood the movie needs from it, and the theatre scenes in particular is eye catching.
This may not be a perfect movie-the plot itself is not incredibly engaging so much so that they tend to forget it in large swathes to focus more on Elizabeth and Dan Leno. There are a few repetitive moments, as the structure and momentum of everything revealed can be a tad flimsy, and it can a bit too brightly lit so the film loses that hard Victorian grit. However, this is a joyful little horror flick that is cruelly underrated. If you get a chance to see it, please do-it deserves way more attention that it is sadly not getting. A ghastly gruesome treat.