The Limehouse Golem (2016)

The Limehouse Golem first published by Little White Lies

The Limehouse Golem begins like a play. First we hear the murmurings of an audience, then we see curtains open, and actor Dan Leno (Douglas Booth) appears on the stage, dressed as a woman and promising to begin at the end. What follows is a cinematic rendition of something like the play’s content: Elizabeth (Olivia Cooke), a former actress, discovers her husband, the playwright John Cree (Sam Reid), dead in his bed, and is placed on trial for his poisoning, with the threat of the gallows hanging over her. Yet what is important here is those first sights and sounds, framing everything that follows as part of a spectacle for an audience (which of course it is). For, adapted by Jane Goldman from Peter Ackroyd’s 2012 novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, this film is a bravura music-hall gothic, with all of 1880s London its theatricalised stage.

After closeted Inspector John Kildare (Bill Nighy) is set up by his superior, in what is a piece of political theatre, to fail in investigating the latest grisly human tableau left by the serial killer dubbed, indeed self-dubbed, ‘the Golem’, he finds in the British Library a handwritten diary/confession which could only have been penned by one of the four men who had visited the reading room at that time: John Cree, Karl Marx (Henry Goodman), scholar George Gissing (Morgan Watkins) and self-made actor/impresario Dan Leno. Connecting this case to Elizabeth’s, Kildare sets about proving her innocence, even as Elizabeth’s own life story – of abuse, neglect, exploitation and eventual celebrity on the boards – also turns out to be the subject of the late John’s failed play Misery Junction, in which Elizabeth would star as herself.

Told in a series of interlocking flashbacks that form a mosaic of both Elizabeth’s troubled past and of London’s rich underbelly, and presenting its own grisly precursor to Jack the Ripper, The Limehouse Golem is a whodunnit that carves up Victorian society to both comic and tragic effect – and, like any good pantomime, comes with enough variety to please everyone in the audience. As its grand guignol and penny dreadfulness unfold in the dockyards, back alleys, gin houses and opium dens of a corrupted capital that is baying for blood (and enjoys a good show), the film’s commitment to anatomising a marginalised demimonde that is oppressed either for its class, ethnicity, gender or sexuality might almost earn it the label of Marxist – and the presence of Marx himself as a character, representing both persecuted Jewry and the proletariat, ensures that there is a solid ideological scaffold from which to hang the film’s social concern with easily overlooked underclasses, even as Elizabeth herself is regarded as doubly tainted, being of low birth and merely a woman. Her mistreatment by so many lies at the heart of the film.

Director Juan Carlos Medina (Painless, 2012) mounts an onscreen drama in which marriages are sham, murders are stage-managed, and only myths and legends are realised. By the time the end of this twisty, topsy-turvy narrative has caught up with its beginning in a world of illusions and performances, nothing seems the same anymore, all rôles have been reversed, and the script has been rewritten several times to centre, elevate and immortalise the Victorian age’s bit players.

Anticipation: Loved director Juan Carlos Medina’s previous film Painless.

Enjoyment: Low society, high gothic, mid orgasm.

In Retrospect: Twisty theatricalisation of Victorian vice – and injustice.

© Anton Bitel