THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM (2016)
Directed by Juan Carlos Medina
Limehouse, for those beyond the M25, is a part of East London not far from where the Ripper used to disembowel his victims. During his heyday, it was an active dockyard and a haven for unsavoury characters to indulge in street violence and debauchery. Director Juan Carlos Medina (Painless), takes us back to this period, using it as the backdrop for a twisty serial killer movie. Think Seven, but with street urchins and bad teeth.
Down the old, dark alleys of the East End blooded bodies line the old, cobbled streets. Their killer? Most likely John Cree (Reid), so locals may breathe a sigh of relief as the film begins with the discovery of his dead body. Evidence points towards his music hall singer wife Lizzie (Cooke) as the culprit. On the case is John Kildare (Nighy), a brilliant detective whose career was hindered by rumours around his sexuality. It is this that gives him immediate empathy for this deeply gifted, and beautiful, woman whose similarly shunned and mistreated because of who she is. Setting out to prove her innocence, and to discover the truth about her husband, Kildare is joined by Constable Flood (Mays) for a macabre and bloody investigation.
The search for the ‘Golem’ takes place between a Victorian present and past, with flashbacks to Lizzie’s upbringing and time in the theatre providing a backbone to the mystery. Much of these deal with social hierarchies and expectations, and we are shown the ways in which Lizzie was hurt and held back by the men in her life. The exception is cross-dressing super star Dan Leno (Booth) who takes her under his wing, kick-starting the string of events that sees her marry John.
Whilst these sequences tend to ramble, often stopping to explore social issues rather than the plot, they are the movie at its best. Lizzie is a fascinating character, and the world we see through her eyes is utterly immersive. The strand with Kildare’s sleuthing is accomplished, yet marginally less compelling. The mystery itself is well handled, with some ingenious turns that further the themes whilst also keeping the audience on the edge of their seats. Unfortunately the pacing is harmed, with scenes of him investigating celebrity suspects George Gissing and Karl Marx lacking any real tension (even if it’s fun to a reconstruction of the latter getting mean with a saw).
Despite being the lead, our protagonist Kildare has austere characterisation, and minimal backing story. However, Nighy does a remarkable job with the role, originally given to Alan Rickman. With the help of a solid costume department he looks like someone in an old painting, yet moves with a masterful elegance. Moreover, behind each grimace and deadpan is a warm soul restrained. He is a man who has coached himself not to show emotion, vulnerability or much of anything. Cooke, by contrast, gives a more expressive performance, with a part that allows her to show her singing chops along with some good, dramatic meat. During the flashbacks she eats up every stage scene, conveying a charismatic performer that makes her downfall all the more tragic. As a fan of her work in Bates Motel, it’s great to see her in a film role worthy of her obvious talent.
However, the real star is London. The sets are wholly convincing, and deeply atmospheric, with lots of great little details. It looks completely authentic, with the props being suitably dilapidated and gothic, embedded in the sort of atmospheric fog you can so easily picture the lurking golem. The main problem is you almost want to spend more time there. In favour of keeping the movie lean some of the smaller parts don’t get the attention they deserve; their limited screen time means they are painted in broad strokes. For any movie this is problematic, but for a detective one it is particularly frustrating. Consequently, in the third act some of the character motivations break down, despite the story becoming more compelling. In this respect it maybe would have benefited from a serialised TV format, allowing some of the narrative threads to be developed. Nonetheless, this is a classy period thriller that deserves to be seen far outside the big smoke.