FILM REVIEW – THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM. With Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke, Eddie Marsan, Douglas Booth, Sam Reid. Written by Jane Goldman. Directed by Juan Carlos Medina. Not rated. 109 minutes.
Perhaps it’s a good thing to have different standards for movies seen on TV and those on the big screen. It might be the cost of seeing the movie or the effort required, but whatever the reason we tend to cut movies seen by way of the convenience of at-home PPV some slack. THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM probably wouldn’t have packed them in, even at the local art house, but from the living room sofa, this murder mystery set in 19th century London is quite appealing. Although not rated, the violence and brief nudity puts this in R-rated territory.
John Kildare (Bill Nighy) of Scotland Yard is assigned the case of a series of gruesome murders in the seedy Limehouse district. There’s no apparent rhyme nor reason to the selection of the victims, but Kildare knows why he was chosen: he’s expected to fail and will provide his superiors a convenient scapegoat. At the same time Lizzie Cree (Olivia Cooke), a local actress, is on trial for the murder of her husband, journalist and failed playwright John Cree (Sam Reid).
Kildare discovers a clue which leads to a list of four men who were at the library on a key date, including Cree and none other than Karl Marx. As Kildare pursues the lead, he comes to believe that it is Cree who was the killer in which case he could have the means of sparing Lizzie the hangman’s noose. Based on a novel by Peter Ackroyd, the movie follows Kildare while daring the viewer to figure it out before him.
Even if you’re not trying to guess the solution, the movie gives us a sense of the low-class British music hall entertainment of the era. A constable assigned to work with Kildare is surprised the inspector knows nothing of stars like Dan Leno (Douglas Booth), whose act consists of dressing in drag. Leno becomes a key figure when he takes a shine to Lizzie and brings her into the act, with the approval of Uncle (Eddie Marsan), the benevolent owner of the theater who has a few dark secrets of his own.
Beyond a strong cast, particularly Nighy, whose trademark drollness takes on a tragic air, what the film offers is atmosphere. It’s not clear how director and Florida native Juan Carlos Medina, making his sophomore effort here, immersed himself in the world of 19th century London, but he revels in the details. We go through not only the streets and music halls, but the pubs, the court chambers, the apartments, and offices of the period. This is a fully-realized world where you feel you might bump into David Copperfield or Sherlock Holmes around the next corner.
So why is it getting a limited theatrical release and going primarily to On Demand (with a DVD release set for November)? Presumably because it lacks any major stars among the recognizable faces, and the murders–while grisly–aren’t quite grisly enough for the horror fans. In short, “The Limehouse Golem” is an atmospheric murder mystery that may not achieve blockbuster status yet it draws you into its world and its mystery, and keeps you guessing right to the end.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.