Friday, September 08, 2017
The Limehouse Golem
‘The Limehouse Golem’ is a darkly entertaining little film that takes a perverse delight in monkeying with genre tropes and audience expectations. It starts out as a cop-and-killer/cat-and-mouse thriller, with jaded Scotland Yard detective John Kildare (Bill Nighy) – considered reputationally expendable by his superiors due to whispers about his sexuality – saddled with the sensationalist case of the title, a series of bloody murders that hark back to the Ratcliff Highway killings immortalised in Thomas de Quincey’s essay ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’. Throw in the Victorian London setting and we’re firmly in proto-Jack-the-Ripper territory.
Then director Juan Carlos Medina and writer Jane Goldman (adapting Peter Ackroyd’s novel) pull the rug as one of Kildare’s four suspects – failed playwright John Cree (Sam Reid) – is killed, ostensibly at the hands of his ill-treated wife, former musical hall star “Little” Lizzie (Olivia Cooke). The cases overlap. Lizzie’s trail becomes as sensational as the Golem murders. The prosecution case stacks up against her. It’s not long before she’s facing the gallows. Suddenly the film has become a courtroom drama with Kildare’s investigation ticking away in the background.
Then there’s another structural and (to a slightly lesser degree) tonal shift as Kildare, convinced that unveiling Cree posthumously as the Golem will both save Lizzie and benefit his career, visits Lizzie in prison and cajoles her into recounting her relationship with John, eager for any snippet of information that might help. We’re now in flashback territory and along for the ride in what could easily have been a trite rags-to-riches story except that Lizzie’s rise to fame is played out against a backdrop of greasepaint, illusion and backstage rivalry, the musical hall a cauldron of simmering tensions and blurred sexual identities. Lizzie’s erstwhile protector and mentor Dan Leno (Douglas Booth) is a female impersonator; Lizzie makes her music hall debut dressed as a boy. There’s a late-in-the-game bit of troilism where Lizzie’s arch-rival Aveline (Maria Valverde) assumes Lizzie’s “wifely duties” (to muddy the waters further, it’s heavily hinted that Aveline is bisexual). Even the troupe’s impresario (Eddie Marsan) – a man so avuncular that everyone calls him Uncle, for God’s sake! – has certain peccadilloes.
So we’re in sleazy potboiler territory. Only we’re not. I mentioned the de Quincey connection earlier, and ‘The Limehouse Golem’ has one eye at all times on the literary. Of course it does. The source material is by Peter Ackroyd, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature who has a Somerset Maugham Award and two Whitbread Awards on his mantelpiece*. Which is why a fog-wreathed murder mystery with all the genre tickboxes well and truly checked – from the haunted copper at the end of his career to the third act race to the gallows – has walk on parts for Karl Marx (Henry Goodman), George Gissing (Morgan Watkins). Dan Leno was also an historical figure. There’s no small amount of delight to be had in seeing the grumpily pragmatic Kildare going up against them – one of the film’s niftiest conceits is playing each of the murders as if one or other of them is guilty of it, depending on whom Kildare is interviewing at the time.
But for all of its literary pretentions, ‘The Limehouse Golem’ is at its best as a treatise on theatricality. The swapping of identities, one individual playing many parts; the nature of hagiography, brutal violence restaged for crowd-pleasing thrills; the interchangeability of gender. But it also says much about the misplaced ethos of masculinity, specifically with regard to how three men in particular want to save or redeem Lizzie and various others just plain use her.
It’s fair to say that ‘The Limehouse Golem’ has a hell of a lot bubbling away during its brisk hour and three quarter running time. It could easily have been a mess – artless and disjointed – even in the hands of an experienced director. Which makes it something worth praising that it is only his second feature-length outing, following 2012’s ‘Painless’ – a film I now have every intention of seeking out. Medina is savvy enough to give the audience what they want – there’s plenty of blood and gore, the streets of London are depicted as appropriately dark and dangerous and seedy, brothels and opium dens abound, and everything is foggy or shadowy – and keep the procedural element of the film happily bouncing from clue to clue, doubling down on the genre beats even as he subverts them.
He’s also adept with actors. Granted, Nighy – who took the role after Alan Rickman stepped down owing to ill-health (he passed away soon after) – doesn’t need much prompting: the role of Kildare fits him like a glove. Mays, a perennially underrated actor, does sterling work and who’d have thought that a Bill Nighy/Daniel Mays double act would form the backbone of the film? Booth, Marsan and Valverde are pitch perfect, the latter taking a role that was basically written as Bitch Queen From Hell and emerging with a nuanced character. And then there’s Cooke, who graduates from a cluster of good performances in indie films and TV dramas in impressive style. ‘The Limehouse Golem’, through all of its shifts in structure and perspective, is finally Lizzie’s story and Olivia Cooke gives us a Lizzie who is unforgettable.
*I’m speaking figuratively here. I don’t know whether he keeps them on his mantelpiece or not. It’s not like I’ve ever been round his gaff.