[This is a repost of my The Limehouse Golem review from the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. The film opens in limited release and on VOD on Friday, September 8th.]
There’s a reason the Jack the Ripper killings rocked late 19th century London. The public, while accosting such violence as abhorrent, simply cannot help itself when it comes to the gruesome and the macabre—why else does TMZ exist? Like it or not, there’s a significant public interest in the horrible things that human beings do to one another, and such is one of the main draws of director Juan Carlos Medina’s Victorian London-set mystery The Limehouse Golem, which follows the search for the titular serial killer with a timely feminist bent that allows this film to go far beyond being a damn good yarn—which it is.
Based on the Peter Ackryod novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, this English crime thriller begins with the arrest of Elizabeth Cree (Olivia Cooke), a famous music hall performer who is suspected of murdering her husband, who it turns out may have a connection to a series of gruesome killings attributed to a figure known only as The Limehouse Golem. An inspector named Kildaire (Bill Nighy), who was transferred outside of London due to rumors of his homosexuality, is brought in to take over the Limehouse Golem case, likely because he can serve as a fine scapegoat in the event that the Golem is not found.
As Kildaire begins investigating the Golem killings, his path meets with Elizabeth, who now faces the death penalty even as she maintains her innocence. Kildaire begins a series of conversations with Elizabeth that reveal how she came to be a famous performer from a poverty-stricken childhood that involved an abusive and religious mother and a sexual assault at a very young age. Elizabeth scraped her way to stardom, intelligently side-stepping the many men who tried to prevent her success by “helping”.
Cooke is fantastic in what’s really the protagonist role here. She let her talent shine on the A&E series Bates Motel and in the Sundance indie Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, but this is the film that proves she’s more than capable of leading a film of her own (and bodes well for her work in Spielberg’s upcoming Ready Player One). Stardust and Kingsman: The Golden Circle co-writer Jane Goldman is The Limehouse Golem’s secret weapon, churning out a firecracker of a script that zips from scene to scene with cheeky dialogue and a sense of urgency, with a strong feminist undercurrent permeating throughout. And in Cooke, Goldman’s script sings, and the actress exudes a confidence and versatility that is mighty impressive.
Indeed, Goldman’s script may be the true star of The Limehouse Golem, and Medina—who made his feature debut with 2012’s Painless—does everything in his power to let the script shine. His frame is artful and poetic without ever calling too much attention to itself, and he realizes Victorian London in vivid detail with a claustrophobia that suits the seedy Limehouse district setting. The audience’s thirst for violence is also quenched, as the glimpses at the Golem’s work are wholly gruesome and at times even a tad nauseating.
The whole cast is pretty terrific, with Nighy doing traditionally swell work as the film’s steadfast and kind-hearted detective, but it’s Douglas Booth who really stands out next to Cooke. He plays a famous and incredibly popular musical performer named Dan Leno, dressing in drag and singing songs for London commonfolk to wide applause. He’s an artist, and he takes Elizabeth under his wing and serves as her mentor through the entertainment business. There’s a delightful playfulness to his character with a hint of a serious edge, as there is with many great artists. His cockney accent and imperfect teeth only add to this fully realized—and extremely watchable—character.