The Limehouse Golem is an entertaining viewing experience.
The Limehouse Golem is garishly over-produced in every way: the pulpy script, the period-piece set design, the inches-thick makeup that the characters wear, the transgressive darkness of the London night and the impoverished griminess of the Victorian-era Limehouse district. It works as an engrossing genre film, but at times its stagey, stylized manner detracts from the twist-filled plot.
The Limehouse Golem is the story of John Kildare (Bill Nighy, in a role initially given to the late Alan Rickman) investigating a string of serial killings in the Limehouse district of London in 1880. The killer has taken to calling himself “the Limehouse Golem” and leaves notes written in his victims’ blood at the crime scenes. By making the murders as grisly and horrific as possible, the film alludes to the real-life serial killer Jack the Ripper, who haunted the nearby Whitechapel district in 1888 with a particularly violent style. Furthering the comparison, both killers operated under a sobriquet.
Kildare quickly narrows the search to four suspects who were sharing the reading room of the British Library on a specific afternoon. Complicating the story and Kildare’s detective work is Lizzie Cree (Olivia Cooke), the wife of one of the four suspects and a close personal friend with another suspect. Unfortunately, Lizzie is on trial for poisoning her husband (and suspected serial killer), John Cree (Sam Reid). Kildare is taken by Lizzie’s magnetic personality and beauty and believes her innocent; he sets out to prove that John was the Limehouse Golem, which would render Lizzie’s murderous act both self-defensive and a public service.
In unweaving this classic genre story, The Limehouse Golem revels in its garish style and a Gothic sensibility. Nearly every outdoors scene is set at night. Kildare regularly meets with Lizzie in her dark prison cell to discuss both John and fellow-suspect Dan Leno (Douglas Booth), with whom Lizzie used to work in a vaudeville acting troupe. The film stages Lizzie’s recollections, thereby showing several of Lizzie and Dan’s performances, replete with cross-dressing, bawdy songs and the sorts of special effects that would delight a live audience in 1880. It’s a fun and engaging cinematic style.
Kildare’s investigation increasingly points to John Cree. Both Lizzie’s past—which featured John intervening repeatedly as a white knight—and Dan Leno’s elaborations on Lizzie’s stories suggest that John entered the killing game even before becoming the slashing Limehouse Golem. He seemingly murdered multiple men who challenged either Lizzie’s safety or rise to stage stardom. Plus, none of the other three men in the library on that fateful afternoon seem plausible as the serial killer. Delightfully, one of these quickly-eliminated suspects is Karl Marx (Henry Goodman), who did live in London in 1880; he’s allowed a diatribe on poverty and the working class before Kildare decides he could not possibly be the serial killer.
The final act of The Limehouse Golem adopts a blindingly fast pace as Kildare works tirelessly to prove John’s guilt before Lizzie is sent to the gallows for his murder. In keeping with the detective-crime genre and the film’s Gothic stylings, the climax is crammed with massive plot twists, character-revealing decisions made by multiple members of the cast and plenty of borderline-horror elements all set in extreme low-light conditions. While the makeup and set design often veer towards hyperbole, some of the plot elements challenge credulity (Marx was world-famous in 1880, not some anonymous library patron) and the camera rarely does anything too interesting, the plot machinations and the film’s sheer exuberant sense of setting are enough to make The Limehouse Golem an entertaining viewing experience.