There should always be room on your viewing calendar for some gruesomely enjoyable period pulp, and “The Limehouse Golem” will fill the bill. It’s a flamboyant piece of Grand Guignol based on a novel by Peter Ackroyd, and like many of his works it mixes together historical figures (Karl Marx, novelist George Gissing and music hall comic Dan Leno are all on hand) with fictional characters, this time in a Victorian-era serial-killer melodrama redolent of the Jack the Ripper spree, but with a touch of Agatha Christie added to the mix.
The convoluted plot mixes together a variety of threads, most tinged in blood-red. One involves a series of brutal murders in the Limehouse district of fog-shrouded London, with messages left behind by the killer who identifies himself with the clay creature of Jewish legend. (One of the victims, moreover, was a Talmudic scholar.) It’s a hot potato of a case, creating such public outcry that it’s passed along to John Kildare (Bill Nighy), a Scotland Yard inspector whose career has been blighted by rumors of homosexuality and so is disposable.
Paired with Constable Flood (Daniel Mays), an ingratiating fellow eager to help him, Kildare narrows down the suspects to a list that includes Marx (Henry Goodman), Gissing (Morgan Watkins) and Leno (Douglas Booth), as well as playwright John Cree (Sam Reid). Unfortunately Cree has just been found dead in his bed, and his wife Elizabeth (Olivia Cooke) is accused of poisoning him and put on trial for murder. Kildare’s questioning of her reveals, through a succession of flashbacks, a background that makes her as much an outsider as he is.
Elizabeth, it seems, was an abused child who found escape in the music hall run by “Uncle” (Eddie Marsan) and featuring as its lead performer Leno, along with Victor, a lascivious little person (Graham Hughes) and acrobatic dancer Aveline (Maria Valverde). Elizabeth was taken on as a general gofer, but eventually took to the stage and became popular as “Little Lizzie.” She also caught the eye of Cree, who at the time was involved with Aveline, and when they became an item—and married—the dancer became envious and vindictive, especially after Elizabeth took her on as a housemaid. She was instrumental in accusing her rival of Cree’s murder, and is happy to testify about the troubled Cree household and Elizabeth’s habit of preparing John’s bedtime libation.
As he listens to her story, Kildare becomes protective of Lizzie, and works to uncover the identity of the killer to help buttress her claim of innocence. He and Flood plow through the evidence; he even tries to envision how Cree, Marx, Gissing or Leno might have committed the crimes (cue a few nightmarish recreations). As the trial draws toward a close, the detective’s search for the truth becomes more and more desperate.
“The Limehouse Golem” is the modern equivalent of a penny dreadful, but those ghoulish nineteenth-century pamphlets get a bad rap; they entertained a great many readers, and if you give this movie a chance, you might find yourself enjoying it despite your better judgment. Jane Goldman’s adaptation is crammed to the brim with incident, including a couple of final twists that are doozies, and director Juan Carlos Medina obviously had a good time plowing his way energetically through the complicated scenario, aided by Grant Montgomery’s florid production design and Claire Anderson’s colorful costumes as well as the imaginative cinematography by Simon Dennis and editing by Justin Krish; the team handily camouflages the fact that the budget was probably a tight one. John Soderqvist’s score adds to the flavorful quality.
The cast is clearly having a good time as well. Nighy is more restrained than usual, but his natural quirkiness keeps peeking through the underplaying, while Cooke, Booth, Reid, Valverde, Goodman, Hughes and Marsan all sink their teeth greedily into the succulently overripe material.
As its title indicates, “The Limehouse Golem” makes no pretense to being high art (as some other novels by Ackroyd do). It contents itself with being the movie equivalent of a carnival sideshow, complete with some really freakish exhibits. And on that very basic level, it works.
The film, incidentally, is dedicated to the late Alan Rickman, who was scheduled to play Kildare before he fell ill. It would have been a juicy swan song for him, but Nighy fills in expertly, and Rickman’s last turn in “Eye in the Sky” will serve as a fitting farewell for a fine actor.