The period horror is a hit and miss genre; for every From Hell, Perfume and The Woman in Black, we have an equal and opposite howler (hard stare at Dorian Gray and every take on Frankenstein sans Mel Brooks). Juan Carlos Medina’s The Limehouse Golem – from the producers of The Woman in Black, as it happens – seeks to enthral rather than embarrass, and pleasantly, it’s actually quite a fun little Victorian jaunt.
Set in London at the height of music hall madness, Bill Nighy is a stately robberies and fraud detective, assigned to the murder case that’s gripped the city – you guessed its name – The Limehouse Golem. A brutal string of killings with seemingly no modus operandi have made catching the culprit impossible for Scotland Yard, and Nighy is assigned the case on the expectation he’ll fail and can be quietly dismissed from the force. But he refuses to go down without a fight, promptly beginning to investigate the four suspects in the murders with a charming lack of internal angst. He’s got his demons, but he’s there to do his job, which is quite refreshing to see. Not every detective has to be Rust Cohle, after all.
The investigation coincides with the arrest of actress Elizabeth Cree for the murder of her playwright husband John, and it soon becomes clear the two crimes are linked. Olivia Cooke makes a fine Elizabeth, vulnerable but powerful, whilst Douglas Booth gives a delightful turn as her confidant and mentor, the flamboyant actor Dan Leno. It’s a most enjoyable Victorian romp, taking heavy inspiration from the infamous Jack the Ripper case as well as shades of Sherlock Holmes, but there’s not an awful lot beyond the pantomime.
The plot is quite convoluted, attempting to fit quite a lot into its 110-minute runtime, which is indicative of films adapted from novels. Many plot threads could have easily been left on the cutting room floor, such as the slightly erroneous appearance of Karl Marx (yes, THAT Karl Marx), and the attempts to touch on every taboo subject of the time period, from sexuality to religious discrimination and gender roles. It’s a surprisingly muddled script from the incredibly talented Jane Goldman, though her use of humour is a nice touch, bringing levity to a story which could otherwise take itself far too seriously.
Whilst it’s admirable that a rather straightforward period drama attempts to address taboo aspects of Victorian society, there isn’t enough time to really say anything important, or give any of the issues more than a cursory reference – as is the same with the Golem’s motivation. It’s quite hard to understand why the murderer is actually murdering people, which is quite a problem for a film where murder plays such a key role.
If you’re looking for a jolly good Victorian jape, The Limehouse Golem is a contender, but it’s unlikely to set the world – or even London – alight. Much like the music halls it concerns, it’s a bit of a cheap thrill.
The Limehouse Golem is released on September 1st