Review: The Limehouse Golem

I love Gothic horror and Penny Dreadful type murder stories so this is perfect for me.

It has all the elements of a good Gothic horror, but it also has a lot of layers, raising it above the Penny Dreadful level into something more.

The setting is Victorian London. A series of brutal murders has rocked the city. People are scared, but just as many are enthralled, eager for every grisly detail and treating the most recent murder scene as a tourist attraction. Bill Nighy is on top form as Kildare, the detective assigned to investigate. Kildare is the fall guy: outcast among his fellow officers because of rumours about his sexuality, he has the job because his bosses expect him to fail. The killer has left a message on the wall of his most recent murder, a message Kildare recognises as a quote from a book. Following the lead to the British Library, he finds the book in question filled with drawings and handwriting detailing the murders. Obviously “the Limehouse Golem” has been there. This narrows Kildare’s suspect pool to four men who were in the library when the last entry was written. One of the four has just died and his wife is on trial for his murder.

The wife is former music hall star Lizzie Cree (Olivia Cooke). She insists her husband’s death was suicide but her maid’s testimony implicates her in the poisoning. Kildare attends the trial because the dead man is one of his suspects. He hears her testify about her abusive childhood and becomes convinced that she killed her husband in self-defence, because she learned he was the Golem. His quest to find the killer becomes a quest to save her life, with the Golem’s handwritten “journal” his best evidence.

The setup alone makes for a fascinating film, with lots of potential twists and turns as the murder mystery deepens. But the film goes further. Kildare’s method is logical: track down each of the four suspects and force them to provide a handwriting sample. In order to compare it directly with the journal, no mere sample will do: Kildare wants them to write the same words. So he reads aloud from the journal, dictating as they write. Since each section of the journal describes a murder, what we see onscreen is each suspect act out the role of the killer as they write. It’s a splendid piece of misdirection because each of them, at least for a moment, becomes a fully believable killer.

Kildare’s relationship with Lizzie is another master stroke. Since we are told early in the film that he is gay, that takes romantic interest off the table, and we tend to read his interest as conviction of her innocence. But it’s easy to see how he comes to identify with her: he’s isolated from his colleagues, treated with less respect than he deserves. She’s outcast, a poor orphan adopted by the musical theatre group but never, according to her own story, fully accepted by them. Neither can she quite fit into the role of a gentleman’s wife. They have enough in common that he sees his own life reflected in hers. Saving her by proving her husband was a killer will in turn save his own career, which further cements the bond. And the story of her past has enough melodrama in it to fill a movie by itself!

It is deliciously dark, full of scenery-chewing performances, ┬ábrutal violence, melodrama, predictable twists and surprises, all wrapped around some really affecting, believable characters and relationships. It has a message about the dangers of obsession, commentary on the public desire for blood and scandal, about societal constraints and the different ways we break free…it’s truly thought provoking in places and over-the-top in others. I really loved it.