(RLJ ENTERTAINMENT/NUMBER 9 FILMS/NEW SPARTA FILMS/LIPSYNC/HANWAY FILMS/DAY TRIPPER FILMS (109 minutes; Unrated); 2017)
If I had to come up with one word to describe THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM, it would probably be “stylish.” However, that isn’t the way reviews work, so… let’s get to it, shall we? The film, based on the Peter Ackroyd novel, THE TRIAL OF ELIZABETH CREE (also known as DAN LEO AND THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM), is a tightly woven murder mystery set in the Limehouse district of 1880 London. At the time, Limehouse was a dark and gritty place and, geographically, not too far from Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel haunts of 1888. Thanks to the attention to detail by director Juan Carlos Medina, cinematographer Simon Dennis, set decorator Pilar Foy and all of the other talented individuals on the other side of the camera, the seediness and rather tawdry look and feel of the sets (especially the music hall, where much of the movie takes place) are as important to the plot as any single character.
That plot unfolds from the end, with a music hall dramatization of the murder trial of Lizzie Cree, an abused and neglected child who has grown up to be an abused and neglected young woman. Amid a frenzy of savage murders perpetrated by a sadistic slasher dubbed the Golem, Lizzie is accused of murdering her husband, John, a failed author, aspiring playwright and primary suspect for the Goelm’s grizzly work. The public, fascinated and horrified by the Golem murders, demands answers and an end to the madness; faced with the possibility of failure, the high-ranking Scotland Yard official handling the case passes the assignment off to Inspector John Kildare, a senior detective with “problems” of his own. With Kildare installed as the fall-guy, the Yard’s hierarchy sees a chance to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak: If Kildare fails to stop the killings, the top brass can save themselves a personal humiliation by laying the blame squarely at the feet of a man they don’t like and want to be rid of. And, why don’t they like Kildare? He is one of THOSE fellows – the Inspector is gay, something not well tolerated in the nineteenth century. By extension, Kildare also inherits the Cree murder case, which leads to a kind of father/daughter relationship with Lizzie. Believing her husband to be the murderous fiend terrorizing Limehouse, the Inspector seeks to prove John guilty in an effort to free Lizzie on a self-defense plea.
As the tale continues to be told with a glance backwards, we are introduced to several characters essential to the Cree’s story, including Dan Leo, a flamboyant music hall performer and stage “narrator”; a stage director and calming presence for the music hall troupe called “Uncle”; aerialist and sexual focal point of the group, Aveline Ortega; and, in flashback fashion, perhaps the person most pivotal to Lizzie’s current woes, her mother. In the 1995 novel, Ackroyd populated his story with several historical figures; Jane Goldman’s script retains three of those luminaries for the film version, to stunning effectiveness: George Gissing, the troubled author whose first novel, WORKERS IN THE DAWN, was published in 1880; Karl Marx, the father of modern Socialism and Communism; and the aforementioned Leo. It is never an easy task to weave real personalities into a work of fiction, but the creative team responsible for THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM have peopled the story with an entire cast of realistically believable characters that the trio of Leo, Gissing and Marx fit right into the surrounding landscape. All three lived in London during the time of THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM, with both Marx and Gissing appearing on the suspect list (and in Kildare’s reimagining of the grizzly killings).
While I fairly well had sussed out who the killer was early into the film, I found myself second-guessing my theories – changing my mind several times as Inspector Kildare and his equally astute assistant investigator, Officer George Flood, interviewed Lizzie and her music hall compatriots and unearthed new leads. Yet, the story is so well done that, when the identity of the Golem is finally revealed, you aren’t disappointed in the least. This is a movie and a story that works so well on so many levels. At the beginning of this review, I told you about the artistic and stylistic beauty of the sets… to that beauty, we can definitely add the work of costume designer, Claire Anderson, whose slightly modern take on the wardrobes of Victorian Londoners is every bit as important to the look of THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM as anything else. Of course, any film is ultimately based on the talents of the people on the screen and this one is stacked with actors perfect for their roles, even if one is actually a replacement for another beloved performer. Olivia Cooke (ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL and the BATES MOTEL television series) is devastatingly vulnerable as Lizzie Cree, while Sam Reid is suitably smarmy as her fame-seeking husband, John; as both business man/mentor and over-the-top stage performer, Douglas Booth (JUPITER ASCENDING, as well as Reid’s co-star in THE RIOT CLUB), shines in the pivotal role of Dan Leo; Spanish beauty Maria Valverde sizzles as Aveline Ortega; in fact, each member of the supporting cast shines brightly and each is given their moment in the spotlight, including Eddie Marsan (Uncle), Keeley Forsyth and Amelia Crouch (as Lizzie’s mother and a younger Lizzie in a couple of frightening sequences that give the viewer important insight into the character) and Daniel Mays (as the rather uptight but totally professional – and loyal – George Flood). As brilliant as these cast members are, I’m not sure that this flick would have risen to the heights to which I have elevated it if it were not for the presence of Bill Nighy (Davy Jones in the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies, Minister Rufus Scrimgeour in HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART ONE and a ton of video games and animated stuff over the last decade or so) as Inspector John Kildare; with Nighy’s understated performance, Kildare is thoughtful, vulnerable and, though set-upon (and set to fail), determined to get at the truth. Nighy was a last minute replacement for Alan Rickman, who was forced to pull out of the project due to illness (the film is dedicated to Rickman, who passed away in 2016).
Obviously, to divulge too many of the intricacies of the plot would be akin to telling your kids that the Tooth Fairy doesn’t exist (remember how that turned out for Dwayne Johnson in THAT movie?), so I’m just going to tell you that THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM is worth your attention and, even if you think you have things figured out in the first twenty minutes, you won’t see the end coming. Just getting to the end is a thrilling, chilling ride through the dark underbelly of late nineteenth century London. Anyone who has ever explored, examined or theorized over the case of Jack the Ripper will certainly recognize the similarities here… that was Ackroyd’s intent with his novel. The fact that the film incorporates several of the tropes common to modern police procedural and crime scene investigation fiction keeps things fresh and allows us to play armchair detective, all the while rooting for Lizzie and Kildare; the fact that both of the main characters are fundamentally flawed (but, then, aren’t we all?) keeps us intrigued and totally invested in the story’s outcome. As always, there are certain scenes, as well as the generally violent theme of the movie that some may find objectionable and, as such, I would probably advise parents of children thirteen or younger to steer clear of THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM while the kids are around… though I’m sure that they could possibly see far worse on an episode of LAW AND ORDER: SVU.