The Limehouse Golem movie review: riffing on the Ripper

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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?

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Hank Gtraham
Hank Gtraham
Tue, Sep 05, 2017 10:16pm

You had me at Gothic horror. :)

Thu, Sep 07, 2017 2:06pm

It’s perhaps a bit unfortunate that the first thing one’s going to think based on “Victorian” + “Limehouse” + “Murders” is Jack the Ripper, and then one has to be told that this isn’t that, which will feel like a let-down… but this looks rather more interesting than the usual Ripper rehashes.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  RogerBW
Sat, Sep 09, 2017 10:59am

Even if someone does think that, I don’t think they’ll be disappointed in what they actually get here!

Thu, Sep 07, 2017 3:49pm

Gothic horror sounds great to me! Also Bill Nighy–I’ve loved him ever since I first heard the BBC Radio play of Lord of the Rings from 1980, where he was Sam Gamgee, one of the best performances on the excellent production.