Director: Juan Carlos Medina
Cast: Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke, Douglas Booth, María Valverde, Sam Reid, Daniel Mays, Henry Goodman, Eddie Marsan, Adam Brown
Nothing ruins a whodunit murder mystery more than knowing well in advance who actually dunit before the big reveal. Films like that rely on their sense of mystery to keep the audience engaged, but when you have everything figured out from the beginning, it becomes tedious watching the filmmakers use every trick in the book to try and throw you off. In the case of The Limehouse Golem, I was able to figure out who the mysterious title character was about, I’d say, 15 minutes in. The more tricks the film threw out to distract me, the more obvious it became.
Ah, but there have been those who argued that the movie is less about who the mysterious killer is and more about the troubling social politics of 1880s London. The detective in charge of the case is John Kildare (Bill Nighy), and he’s not very well-liked by others in his department because it’s rumored that he might be gay. One potential suspect in the Golem case is deceased playwright John Cree (Sam Reid), whose wife, celebrated stage actress Elizabeth Cree (Olivia Cooke), is on trial for poisoning him. Like many of her gender during that time, Elizabeth was horrifically abused by a hostile and patriarchal society, as we learn when she tells Kildare her tragic life story. Moved by compassion over her situation, Kildare sets out to prove that John Cree was the Golem, which he hopes would convince the courts to show her leniency for ridding the world of such a savage killer.
A truly terrific thriller might have been able to successfully mix the social commentary with scenes of gory horror, but in Jane Goldman’s screenplay (which is based on a 1994 novel by Peter Ackryod, unread by me), the mix is inconsistent and uneasy. One second, we get flashback scenes of people getting decapitated, mutilated, and eviscerated (the movie does not shy away from the gore), but then we cut to flashbacks detailing Elizabeth’s life story, and it feels like we’ve wondered into a completely different film. The movie does eventually tie the two threads together in the end, but it does so in a very unconvincing and unsatisfying way (and the final scene, involving a tragic accident with a stage prop, is just stupid). In the end, you’re thinking less on the social politics of that period in time and more on the confused and unfocused manner in which the movie plays out.
The movie marks the second feature film for director Juan Carlos Medina, and while I haven’t seen his first film (2012’s Painless), based on his work here, I’m not entirely sold on the guy. His choice to film the movie in dingy and dark grays and greens result in a film that looks more dirty than atmospheric. A dark visual look is certainly appropriate for a movie like this, and there are ways to do it right. I enjoyed the look of movies like 1999’s Sleepy Hollow, 2012’s The Raven, and, heck, even The Woman in Black movies. Those films were visually dark, but sumptuously atmospheric. The Limehouse Golem, on the other hand, just looks ugly. More than anything, I wanted to take a bottle of Windex to the screen.
Honestly, the best thing that can be said about the movie are the performances, some of which are surprisingly good. One of Kildare’s many suspects is famed philosopher Karl Marx (yes, that Karl Marx), and while you can count on one hand the number of scenes he’s in, Henry Goodman is quite good in the role. Douglas Booth is solid as Dan Leno, an actor who frequently dresses up like a woman, and who’s perhaps the only seemingly decent character in the film; Reid is truly nasty as the loathsome Mr. Cree; and Cooke turns in her best performance to date as the doomed Elizabeth Cree. Bill Nighy is fine but not terribly memorable as Kildare, although I’ve since learned that he wasn’t the first choice to play the role. It was originally supposed to go to Alan Rickman, but unfortunately, the actor died before he could be in the movie (the movie is dedicated to him). While he probably wouldn’t have saved the film, Rickman would have certainly brought more layers to the role than Nighy does.
Final Grade: * ½ (out of ****)
Not Rated, but would definitely be a hard R for strong bloody violence, disturbing images and themes, nudity, and sexual content