One upside of the recent Downton-isation of British cinema and television – lacing up history in pretty bows for easy export – has been the rediscovery of a counter-strain of period horror. The Awakening, The Woman in Black and small-screen scream Penny Dreadful all cut a swathe through Empire’s underbelly, exposing the rot that lurked behind the hope and glory. Now there’s The Limehouse Golem (★★★, cert 15, 109 mins), a curious melange born of wildly diverse influences: turning Peter Ackroyd’s novel over to cackling Kick-Ass scribe Jane Goldman,Juan Carlos Medina’s film attempts an altogether grisly cross-section of late 19th-century London. You might want to brace (or at least cross) yourself.
The year is 1880, and we find the eponymous East End murderer several kills into a reign of terror stirring press and public into a frenzy. Bill Nighy’s marginalised Scotland Yarder Kildare is on the case. Yet he’s soon distracted by Lizzie Cree (Olivia Cooke), a doll-like music-hall performer accused of poisoning her playwright husband. Ackroyd’s thesis is that, for Victorian London, murder provided its own form of entertainment, bestowing celebrity upon an infamous few. Much as there was speculation that Jack the Ripper had to have been well-connected, so too the Golem’s slayings throw up illustrious suspects: Karl Marx (Henry Goodman), George Gissing (Morgan Watkins) and Dan Leno (Douglas Booth).
Medina, meanwhile, gets starry-eyed over his glitzy music-hall set – understandably so, as it provides the only gaiety and warmth coming off the screen. Dark, dank and crowded, shrouded in the noxious fumes of industry and intolerance, Limehouse Golem’s London forms a theatre of cruelty in which Lizzie Cree’s fate is to be sold off or married off to brutes. This distinguishes the film from the cosy Sunday night telly that’s started sneaking into multiplexes. Medina’s bloody backstreet meanderings owe more to Hannibal Lecter than Hugh Bonneville. It’s just a pity everybody’s locked into a plot that’s never quite as richly detailed as Ackroyd’s historical backdrop.
Nighy aces a poignant coming-out scene with a young constable (Daniel Mays), but in the main, the film’s a bit thin on nuance. It ends up seeming both clever and strained: a race-to-the-gallows set piece parallels an earlier staged execution but feels hackneyed.
For all its literary trappings, the film is finally a penny dreadful itself, one that hooks and diverts yet brooks no lasting scrutiny. Still, given British cinema’s current fusty state, a pungent whiff of sulphur like this might just count as a breath of fresh air.
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