Grand old feminist potboiler from the murky streets of London

The Limehouse Golem review: Wonderful cast make themselves at home in the streets of 1880s London

Bill Nighy and Olivia Cooke in The Limehouse Golem

Film Title: The Limehouse Golem

Director: Juan Carlos Medina

Starring: Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke, Douglas Booth, Daniel Mays, Sam Reid, María Valverde, Henry Goodman, Morgan Watkins, Eddie Marsan

Genre: Mystery

Running Time: 109 min

Thu, Aug 31, 2017, 10:38

   

Oh, what fun. This grand old potboiler starts as it means to go on: by lining up some of the best looking, most gifted British character actors – Olivia Cooke! Douglas Booth! – as murder suspects.

The occasion is a gruesome series of killings, slayings that are not unlike those that will be perpetrated by Jack the Ripper a decade later.

The subtext, despite the presence of dead gin-soaked sex workers, is as feminist as can be: we stop just short of the main character burning her whalebone corset. The modern parallels don’t stop there.

The Limehouse Golem repeatedly rails against the idea that women need saving. Notes and clues from the eponymous killer decry a society that derives entertainment from murder. There are gestures, too, toward a secret gay history.

 Stepping effortlessly into a role that was once earmarked for the late Alan Rickman, Bill Nighy is police inspector John Kildare, a kindly copper who might have risen through the ranks if it weren’t for certain “rumours”.

Grisly killing

He is assigned to a grisly family killing, a case that is considered unsolvable and one that might just spell an ignominious end to an inglorious career. His careful investigation, as aided by Daniel Mays on the beat, introduces him to Elizabeth (Cooke), a former music-hall star accused of killing her husband.

A series of flashbacks reveal her journey from an abusive childhood to the theatre where drag-act sensation Dan Leno (Booth) headlines. Leno’s bawdy take on the appalling contemporaneous treatment of women is soon complimented by Elizabeth’s cross-dressing salty sailor.

Might the murder of Elizabeth’s husband and the other killings be linked? Kildare thinks so and sets about formulating a defence by visiting and considering such unlikely suspects as Karl Marx and the Victorian novelist George Gissing, neither of whom deserve their cartoonish presentation here, even if intended in hyperbolic jest.

Director Juan Carlos Median plays welcome tricks with diegetic material, narration and lighting. These innovations offset a narrative that, despite being based on Peter Ackroyd’s 1994 murder mystery novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, addresses – or rather brutalises – such voguish notions as white knighting.

A wonderful cast make themselves at home against the music halls and maggoty, murky streets of 1880s London.