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Surely destined to enjoy cult status in later life
The Limehouse Golem, adapted from the novel by Peter Ackroyd, has lingered in development hell for years, being passed between various directors and actors (Alan Rickman pulled out at the last minute due to his failing health), before finally getting the green light in the hands of rookie filmmaker Juan Carlos Medina and screenwriter Jane Goldman. Boasting a terrific cast, a blood-drenched, smog- filled atmosphere, and a murder mystery that is as grisly as it is engaging, the film has sadly struggled to find an audience. With a measly number of ratings just shy of 4,000 on IMDb, its failure is truly unfortunate. The Limehouse Golem is, at its heart, a Sherlock Holmes-esque mystery set in a pre-Jack the Ripper London, complete with a frustrated detective, a handful of red herrings, a small band of colourful suspects. But dig a little deeper, and there's an interesting feminist work at play.
Beginning, as charismatic music hall performer Dan Leno (Douglas Booth) announces, at the end, Medina introduces to this eternally grey world with the death-by-poison of wannabe playwright John Cree (Sam Reid). His wife Lizzie (Olivia Cooke) is distraught, but her conniving maid Aveline (Maria Valverde) - whose role in the story becomes clearer through flashbacks - drops the hint to police that Lizzie is the one to make his nightcaps, and insisted on doing so the night the husband she wasn't very fond of died. The beginning, at we come to learn, is more like the middle, as this opening scene not only sets in motion Lizzie's story (she is arrested and faces the noose is found guilty), but may also hold the key to the identity of a brutal killer who has terrified the community of Limehouse with a series of nasty slayings - The Limehouse Golem.
We learn of the Golem's activities through John Kildare (Bill Nighy), a disliked Scotland Yard investigator brought in as a scapegoat when previous investigations have led to dead ends. Upright and quietly-spoken, Kildare is known as "not the marrying type," and has therefore found himself dumped in menial department ushered away in some dark corner, despite his obvious skills in the field. To help navigate the filthy slums, he procures the help of highly competent copper George Flood (Daniel Mays). Yet Kildare's hunt for the killer is made even more desperate by the ticking-clock that is Lizzie's trial, and saving her from the gallows becomes as equally important as preventing another murder victim. Man's urge to rescue a 'woman in need' is a prime focus of Medina's film, and Lizzie seems to find one at every turn. A victim of childhood abuse, she is also doted over by Cree, a nice guy on the face of it, but one driven by the need to sweep a girl away from nothing and into his handsome, middle-class arms.
Kildare quickly learns that Lizzie doesn't need to be, or even want to be, saved. Nighy may have received top billing, but this is very much Cooke's film. She has the most screen time, and handles Lizzie's development from a strong-willed working-class girl, into a star of the music hall, and eventually into a possible murderer, astonishingly well. As Leno, Booth plays the role like a big-toothed and less annoying version of Russell Brand, and shows remarkable restraint and skill in avoiding stumbling into caricature. But much praise must also be lavished on Medina and Goldman, who both manage to juggle the thrills and intrigue of a Victorian whodunit with a character piece that reveals far more layers than you would expect. When it does delve deeper into the mystery, Medina relishes the squalor, employing different characters to monologue the killer's diary as Kildare lines up the suspects, and delivering some surprisingly gory moments. Surely a film destined to enjoy cult success later in life, The Limehouse Golem is a truly unexpected delight.
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