The Limehouse Golem

The Limehouse Golem (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

Victorian London horror picture “The Limehouse Golem,” written for the screen by Jane Goldman and directed by Juan Carlos Medina, is willing to show the grizzly details of murder but this bravado does not get in the way of telling a proper, convincing, and thoroughly engaging story. It is based on the novel “Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem” by Peter Ackroyd, and it shows. It is concerned with putting characters under a microscope and studying them. As a solid detective story ought to do, it challenges the viewers to question or grow suspicious of even the most seemingly trustworthy characters. As a result, when the identity of the murderer is finally revealed, we are not surprised. Rather, we understand completely as to why the destination makes sense.

The tale opens with a stinging curiosity. A handful of Londoners have been murdered with seemingly no connection to one another: young, old, rich, poor, Jewish, Christian, respectable men, and whores of the street have been butchered by the titular character. There is a list of suspects and the prime suspect is a dead man (Sam Reid) who had just been killed—by poisoning, it appears, in the hands of his wife, Elizabeth (Olivia Cooke)—the night before Detective Inspector John Kildare (Bill Nighy) had arrived in the city to take over the highly publicized case.

Is it possible that the case was already closed even before the inspector had set foot in London? It is most enjoyable that the material actually plays upon this ticklish possibility. Lesser pictures helmed by filmmakers only interested in thrills or buckets of blood rather than building upon a delicious mystery would have likely swiped this potential to the side at the earliest convenience—choosing sensation over a more cerebral, meaningful experience. Not here. It respects the audience’s time and intelligence by approaching the story through the eyes of an experienced investigator. It is a film adaptation that is, in its own way, a page-turner. Is it overstuffed at times? Yes. But is there always something worthy looking at or worth considering? Affirmative.

The film commands two timelines and both are executed with elegance and seeming ease. At times I didn’t know which was more interesting: the post-murder spree or the flashbacks involving a daughter of an unmarried mother who finds her calling in a music hall. These are beautifully photographed, atmospheric, and specific—there is never any question whether what we are seeing on screen is the past of the present. As connections between them grow stronger, so do our conclusions regarding the identity of the killer. Because the material takes its time to show the history of those who survived through the Golem murders, it must be one of them. It just can’t be random stranger… Right?

All performances are carefully calibrated, from Nighy who portrays an aging but determined investigator, Cooke who must balance vulnerability and resilience, to Douglas Booth who plays a clown, essentially, on stage and a curiosity but very human off-stage. As Goldman’s screenplay juggles various strong personalities and how they fit into the main puzzle to be solved, nearly each scene strives—and succeeds for the most part—to reveal something new or surprising about every one of them. One can feel the filmmakers’ efforts in elevating a story with an ordinary premise to another level that is actually worthy of pondering over.

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