Was Karl Marx actually Jack the Ripper? Director Juan Carlos Medina’s The Limehouse Golem doesn’t actually ask that question, but it asks a similar one. During a hunt for a murderer in 1880s London, the whiskery Marx is a suspect; one reenactment of the crime has him caped, glowering, talking straight to the camera in the slowed-down devil’s voice, before wielding a straight razor.
Loads of right-wingers consider Marx to be history’s worst monster, but no one ever accused him of being a serial killer before.
It’s adapted from Peter Ackroyd’s tricky and literate 1994 novel, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. Scriptwriter Jane Goldman reversed the plot, like someone inverting a pocket to sew it, and shorted out the numerous literary references. The book told its story from the angles of several observers. This version is more straightforward, with a Holmes and Watson-esque team on the case: John Kildare (Bill Nighy), a disliked police inspector pushed into the jobliterally pushed, when his supervisor kicks him out of a horse-drawn cab into the mob of a bunch of shouting reporters. Assigned to help him is Flood, a fleshy London copper (Daniel Mays) who has been on the hell-on-earth Limehouse beat for some time.
The investigation is catalyzed by the testimony of former music hall star Lizzie Cree (Olivia Cooke). She faces the gallows for the accused arsenic murder of her husband John (Sam Reid). Kildare suspects John of being the killer, in a ghastly crime wave which included the dismemberment of a young prostitute and an old Jewish scholar.
Lizzie’s break into show business came courtesy of the music hall performer Dan Leno (Douglas Booth). As Leno is described in the book, you imagine him as a job for Eddie Redmayne. Booth, by contrast is a very contemporary type of handsome guy, as if the offspring of Keira Knightley and Robert Pattinson. In the movie version, Leno is a possible lover, or a possible killer, so Medina needed someone larger and stronger than the small and slight entertainer of the book. Booth is good looking and menacing, but he can’t give us the shade of the famous Leno: supposedly the best paid performer in England in his day, and an unofficial court jester for King Edward VII. Cooke’s Lizzie matches Booth in anachronism.
One way The Limehouse Golem could have worked would have been to show not just the Sweeney Todd level penny-dreadful entertainments, but the excitement and brio of the music halls. There’s barely music in a music hall performance where Lizzie improvises up a saucy sailor-boy character, dressing up in drag and singing in a thin waifish voice. But to Medina, these entertainmentsbroad comedy or bloody farrago alikeare gauche and peculiar. Were they always? We have plenty of examples of how this popular entertainment worked at its bestsee Angela Lansbury singing “Goodbye, Little Yellow Bird” in 1945’s The Picture of Dorian Grayand this movie could have used some of that kind of that boisterousness.
Medina has an eerie crimson and absinthe green color scheme here. The not-too-deep backgrounds with their inferior CG match the painted backdrops of the theater stages. In the context of a film about the stage copying life and the other way around, it’s fine that the backdrops aren’t perfect illusions. And The Limehouse Golem isn’t wrong about the way Victorian London treated a dirt-poor woman: to be saved from whoredom by one man meant, inevitably, to end up being used by another.
But the mystery’s revelation is unsatisfactory, with withheld evidence and reverse angles we didn’t get clues on the first time around. The better actors here redeem the unlikely plot. Eddie Marsan is one, as a pervy old cove who looks like Rudyard Kipling, begging for a caning.
Nighy’s role is, in outline, Holmes-like. But his Kildare is less competent than Sherlock, so he’s a tragic figure; it’s one of the least comic parts he’s taken. The film uses his numb upper lip, his sepulchral face with its parchment-like skin perfectly. Ian McKellan has been absent on screen for a while, maybe Nighy could take over the Vincent Price roles McKellan seemed perfect for oncedoes he have a taste for this sort of gaslight and madness material?
The Limehouse Golem
UR; 106 Mins.
Available Sep 8 on VOD