Mark Reviews Movies

The Limehouse Golem


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Juan Carlos Medina

Cast: Olivia Cooke, Bill Nighy, Douglas Booth, María Valverde, Sam Reid, Eddie Marsan, Daniel Mays, Adam Brown, Henry Goodman, Morgan Watkins

MPAA Rating: Not rated

Running Time: 1:49

Release Date: 9/8/17 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 7, 2017

A serial killer is on the loose in London in 1880, eight years before Jack the Ripper's spree. The killer's motive is unknown, and the modus operandi changes with every murder. The victims are unconnected, even by broad associations. The killer targets men, women, and children alike, with no concern for class, employment, or religion. The murders are gruesome and grotesque—bloody messes with slashed throats, multiple stab wounds, and removed body parts. Scotland Yard has no suspects, and the only clue is that the killer identifies as "the Golem," an ancient creature, created by man, from Jewish folklore.

All of this is sensational in a way that catches and retains the public's morbid curiosity and obsession, and a lesser movie on this subject might have tried to appeal to those sensibilities. The Limehouse Golem, though, is not concerned with the macabre or the scandalous. Its focus is more subdued, as the murders are the entryway into a story about the politics of Victorian London—particularly the politics of class and gender. It's surprisingly thoughtful, despite the subject matter in the background, and even though the mystery of the killer's identity isn't much of one, the fact that we can garner the person responsible for these grisly murders, well before the film reveals it, adds an unintentional layer of horror to the narrative.

Much of the story is surrounded by the theatrical modes of the time, and director Juan Carlos Medina and screenwriter Jane Goldman (adapting Peter Ackroyd's novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem) embrace a sense of theatricality from the start. A narrator on a stage introduces us to a story, which will begin at the ending. The ending is the arrest of Lizzie Cree (Olivia Cooke), who is alleged to have murdered her husband John (Sam Reid) via poison in his routine nightcap.

Meanwhile, the most recent victims of the Golem—a family of five in a shop that was the sight of famous murders almost 70 years prior—are discovered. Scotland Yard has enlisted John Kildare (Bill Nighy) to lead the investigation. Kildare is in his later years, but this is his first homicide case. His career could have gone in a different direction, except for rumors that he was not "the marrying type" plaguing him. Now, he's an easy scapegoat if the tricky investigation doesn't lead to the killer.

The two story threads here are Kildare's investigation, which leads him down a trail of red herrings, and Lizzie's life from her youth to her current legal predicament—facing hanging for murdering her husband. Kildare finds himself drawn to Lizzie because of her circumstances and because John is on his short list of Golem suspects. The others include Dan Leno (Douglas Booth), a famed comedian in the music hall scene, and Karl Marx (Henry Goodman).

Yes, he's that Karl Marx. The film's intersecting narrative of fiction (the murders themselves, for example) and reality (Marx, obviously, and Leno are historical figures, and the back story of that old house is also a matter of history) is a major component of film's intrigue and, based on a broad outline of the plot, its unlikely intelligence. It's subtle, for example, the way that Marx's appearance, as brief as it is, gets us to thinking about matters of class and oppression—just in case the film's own thought process on such matters isn't obvious from its central characters.

Lizzie and Kildare are both outcasts from society—Lizzie for her upbringing in poverty, as well as her later career in the theater, and Kildare for those rumors about his tendency toward the company of men. Lizzie's story is a sad one—raised by a single mother, working jobs on the docks, abused by her mother and random men. It has the makings of a popular melodrama of the time, which is Lizzie's goal when she meets John, a struggling playwright who sees himself as a "white knight" for this socially rejected woman. Lizzie joins the music hall where Leno has become a sensation, becomes an overnight success for her bawdy songs and comic timing, and dreams of being seen as a serious actress.

Throughout her career, people around her seem to die with alarming frequency, which leads Kildare to consider Lizzie's deceased husband and her theatrical mentor as suspects. If her husband was the Golem, the court surely, Kildare believes, will look with sympathy and perhaps gratitude on Lizzie for ending the scourge on the city.

It's difficult, if not impossible, to go any further into the film's observations of certain politics of the time without giving away the game (although, again, it must be emphasized that the end result of the mystery isn't much of a secret). What can comfortably be said is that Medina and his production team have created an authentic and atmospheric recreation of London at the time. A gaslit air of menace permeates the investigation and the flashbacks to the murders—each one seen in relatively bloodless moments from each of the likely suspects, until the real killer shows us the detailed horror of the crimes. The boisterous life of the music hall serves as a cheerful counterpoint, while the backstage drama offers the possibilities of a motive.

This may not be convincing as a mystery, but it doesn't matter. Goldman and Medina have provided much more to ponder with The Limehouse Golem—about those politics, the nature of fame and infamy, the stories that last, whom people remember in those tales, and why they're remembered.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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