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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

The Limehouse Golem movie review: riffing on the Ripper

The Limehouse Golem green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Lush sensationalism and Dickensian social justice collide in 1880s London, and if there isn’t quite enough of either, it’s still a slice of satisfying gothic horror.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Lush sensationalism and Dickensian social justice collide in The Limehouse Golem, and somehow even though it doesn’t offer quite enough of either, it still ends up a slice of satisfying gothic horror.tweet In 1880 London, in the poor titular East End district, a series of vicious murders rattles the city, killings so brutal that only a monster like the mythical Golem of Jewish lore could have committed them. (Limehouse was a heavily Jewish community at the time.) Scotland Yard’s Detective Inspector John Kildare is on the case, reluctantly: he presumes he’s a sacrificial lamb being set up for a fall when the crimes prove unsolvable.

The Victorians didn’t wait for a crime to be solved before they told sensational stories about it.

The Victorians didn’t wait for a crime to be solved before they told sensational stories about it.tweet

As Kildare, Bill Nighy (Their Finest) is startlingly somber, like we’ve never seen him before, which is just right. His usual winking sparkle would strike completely the wrong tone for a story that isn’t just about horrific violence but also about smacking down — ahem — the public’s embrace of gory real-life crime, as represented in mid-Victorian London by, for instance, the scandalous music-hall performances of star Dan Leno (Douglas Booth: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). Leno is one of Kildare’s suspects, as is John Cree (Sam Reid: Serena), the journalist husband of one of Leno’s stagemates, Lizzie (Olivia Cooke: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), who is herself now on trial for John’s poisoning murder. Is there a connection? Did she murder her husband — if she did — because she knew he was the Golem? Other suspects include Karl Marx (Henry Goodman: Burnt)! (The all-around terrific cast also features Eddie Marsan [Atomic Blonde] as Leno’s theatre manager and Daniel Mays [Rogue One: A Star Wars Story] as Kildare’s cop sidekick.)

It’s not bloody murder on parade but cynicism about human nature. Or is it just realism?

Leno was a real historical person as well, though the Limehouse murders are invented. I suspect novelist Peter Ackroyd, whose 1994 novel Dan Leno & the Limehouse Golem (aka The Trial of Elizabeth Cree) this is based on, wanted to fictionalize the Jack the Ripper killings (which occurred just a few years later) to comment on the numerous injustices of Victorian culture, which unfortunately still resonate today. And so just as Leno’s crossdressing burlesques are actually rather sympathetic to the unfairness of being a woman in the world, so is Golem the movie too, via Lizzie’s backstory; other characters have secrets, as well, that narrowminded societal bigotry prevents them from revealing. Director Juan Carlos Medina, with his second feature, and screenwriter Jane Goldman (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children) never let bloody murder descend into outright lurid spectacle here; what is on parade here is cynicism about human nature. Or is it just realism?

Click here for my ranking of this and 2017’s other theatrical releases.

green light 3.5 stars

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The Limehouse Golem (2017) | directed by Juan Carlos Medina
US/Can release: Sep 08 2017 (VOD same day)
UK/Ire release: Sep 01 2017

MPAA: not rated
BBFC: rated 15 (strong bloody violence, gory images, strong sex, sexual violence)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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