The Limehouse Golem review: A Victorian melodrama with all the trimmings

Structured like a music hall morality play, the film plays on our voyeurism with its dark material
Structured like a music hall morality play, the film plays on our voyeurism with its dark material

Juan Carlos Medina, 109 mins, starring: Olivie Cooke, Bill Nighy, Douglas Booth, Adam Brown, Daniel Mays, Eddie Marsan, Amelia Crouch

The Limehouse Golem is a Victorian melodrama with all the trimmings. Don’t come to it looking for restraint. Based on Peter Ackroyd’s novel, this is a knowing pastiche of old Penny Dreadful literature. It includes murder (lots of it), mystery, cameos from real historical figures (Karl Marx and novelist George Gissing among them), and a very vivid evocation of 19th century music hall.

One of the great pleasures here is the utterly unrestrained way in which director Juan Carlos Medina tackles his material. This is not one of those buttoned up British costume dramas. Its intention is to be as lurid as possible. It is the kind of film in which killers will take out the eyes of their victims in case their images had been imprinted on them.

There are some strange contortions in the storytelling, especially when it comes to the sexual politics. The film can just about be read as a feminist revenge movie – even as it serves up the kind of gruesome imagery you encounter in morbidly nostalgic dramas about Jack the Ripper or in Madame Tussaud’s Chamber Of Horrors.

Almost all of the main male characters here, regardless of their shape, size or class, behave in brutal fashion toward the women. They all have their dirty secrets, too.

There are pornographers, child rapists and killers among them.“We all wear pantomime masks, do we not,” the androgynous and outrageous music hall star Dan Leno (Douglas Booth) suggests. Only slowly, though, does the monstrousness lurking beneath the mask of Victorian propriety become apparent.

As the corpses pile up, the film’s Good Old Days-style celebration of Victorian popular entertainment begins to seem very perverse. The dead include as many men as women. Jane Goldman’s screenplay makes it clear that most of them deserve their fate.

The main character here is “Little Lizzie,” the dimple-chinned waif who grew up in abject poverty, but was hired as part of Dan Leno’s troupe and became a favourite of the halls. Played by Amelia Crouch as a child and by Olivia Cooke as an adult, she seems at first like the equivalent to those innocent young characters played by Lillian Gish in D W Griffith movies, or who feature as victims in Charles Dickens novels. That’s not Lizzie’s temperament at all, though. She is go-getting, tough and completely self-reliant.

Bill Nighy (in a role originally intended for the late Alan Rickman) plays Inspector Kildare of the Yard, a detective assigned to investigate the so-called “Limehouse Golem” murders. He’s the Sherlock Holmes type, and even has his Watson surrogate in tow in the shape of doughty, slightly dim-witted constable George Flood (Daniel Mays.)

Kildare knows that he is being set up. His superiors expect him to fail. They would far rather he take the responsibility for not solving the crime than that one of their more favoured officers tarnishes his reputation.

As the film begins, five victims are already dead. The killings are so vicious that the locals fear some evil mythical being, the Golem, is on the loose.

Lizzie is caught in the middle of the investigations. Circumstantial evidence suggests she may have poisoned her abusive husband John Cree (Sam Reid). She is a proud figure whose demure demeanour belies both her very humble origins and her years in the music hall. Cooke plays the role with energy, cunning and poise.

The film does an excellent job of portraying the halls in all their colour and subversiveness. This isn’t simply a case of comedians singing songs with suggestive lyrics. The music hall performances here are wildly inventive affairs, using trompe l’oeil and cinematic effects.

As played in very flamboyant fashion by Booth, the expressive and camp Leno seems closer to David Bowie than to traditional music hall stars like George Robey. Eddie Marsan registers almost equally strongly as the kindly theatre manager who turns out to have a very dark side.

The film itself is structured as if it is an especially melodramatic and far-fetched music hall morality play. It plays on our voyeurism. It doesn’t just set out to entertain us, but makes us feel a twinge of guilt and embarrassment about our own enjoyment of such dark material. As we are told: “He who observes spills no less blood than he who inflicts the blow.”

Nighy’s Kildare diligently pursues leads which take him from Limehouse Docks to the British Library, where the killer has scribbled clues and provocations in the margins of a book. The storyline contains frequent references to another famous murder case in the East End years before.

It’s not entirely clear what purpose is served by filling the film with historical figures like Marx (played by Henry Goodman beneath a voluminous beard) or Gissing (Morgan Watkins). Some of the Grand Guignol shock tactics are a little silly, but you can’t quibble that The Limehouse Golem is wildly over the top. That’s precisely what it is meant to be – and what gives the drama such a kick.

The Limehouse Golem hits UK cinemas 1 September.