A macabre ambience hangs over 1890s London in a similar way to how Beverly Hills in 1969, or parts of Yorkshire during the 1970s, have been defined by the actions of their most monstrous men. Nonetheless, Charles Manson and Peter Sutcliffe are still latecomers to the blood trail instigated by Jack the Ripper, the mysterious ghoul who butchered prostitutes in turn of the century Whitechapel.
So culturally pervasive have these murders become that one need only evoke a sputtering gas lamp, or wet cobbled streets at midnight, to convey a sense of shadowy predators and pathological violence.
The Limehouse Golem, adapted from a 1994 novel by Peter Ackroyd, is a testament to this. A series of murders in London’s East End have the police flummoxed and the media frenzied. Inspector John Kildare (Bill Nighy) of Scotland Yard is put on the case when a fresh slaying – the death by poison of a music hall star’s husband – offers a fresh perspective on events. The star in question, Elizabeth (Olivia Cooke), is soon in the dock and set to hang, unless Kildare can prove good on his hunch that she’s been framed. No Ripper then, but rather suspicion that a press-christened ‘Golem’ has been making its gruesome rounds.
The filmmakers delight in the set-up’s sumptuous artificiality, and fittingly so given that the music hall plays such a starring role. For as we follow Kildare on his investigation – accompanied by lowly but loyal PC George Flood (Daniel Mays) – we also learn more about Elizabeth’s rise and demise on the stage.
Under the tutelage of headlining song-and-dance man Dan Leno (played with brilliant blokey camp by Douglas Booth), Elizabeth finds her calling, and less fortunately, a partner; John Cree (Sam Reid). Intent upon making her his muse, Cree confirms himself as a sexist, egotistical patriarch.
The Limehouse Golem indeed wears its politics on its sleeve. Kildare, we should intimate, is homosexual, and thus a fall-guy for a case the MET have failed to crack, while the third act’s major revelation is a great feminist fist-in-the-air.
This admirable attention to diversity is occasionally capsized by the film’s mediocrity – gorgeous to look at, it plods on with inevitability, to the extent that Nighy’s character (and everyone else) come out looking a bit dense for not seeing things the audience worked out ages ago.
Ultimately Ripper Street with a bigger budget, The Limehouse Golem is stylishly crafted and has some interesting gender twists, although for some will solicit titillation rather than terror. As entertaining romps go though, you could do much worse.