The Limehouse Golem concerns a vicious killer who stalked the East End of 1880s London. It details how the police were dogged by the press as they went through a long list of suspects. It acknowledges that the crimes were as much about class as sex, and the police investigation was as much about politics as justice. There is doubt even over the number of victims.
But it isn’t a Jack the Ripper film.
Inspector Kildare is a ferociously intelligent detective, with human failings and questionable morals; who believes he is immune to the whiles of the fairer sex and who, along with his assistant and sounding board, Flood, chases the clues, works the evidence and pursues the suspects through the foggy, gas-lit back-streets of old London town.
But this isn’t a Sherlock Holmes film.
Except, of course, the shadows of Jack and Sherlock are so long, it’s impossible not to feel their presence in any depiction of late Victorian London, even in their deliberate absence.
The story takes place eight years before the summer and autumn of the Ripper and begins with a house full of corpses who have been so brutally murdered one could almost say they’d been ripped! When Bill Nighy’s Kildare is given the poison chalice of the ‘golem’ killings, the house, with the corpses still in situ, is also full of police, the press and the curious. There is nothing we’d recognise as police procedure, but then, this is set 100 years before the term ‘serial killer’ was coined. Fortunately, he is assisted by a bobby called Flood (played, ably, by Daniel Mays) who, in a departure from the way such characters are usually portrayed, is as intelligent as he is street-wise. They make a good team and their friendship, like their performances, is understated.
|Nighy and Mays experimenting with one of those evidence boards, most beloved of movie serial killers and TV detectives.|
Kildare is trying to uphold justice at a time when victims were routinely blamed for the crimes inflicted upon them, the poor were beneath consideration, and women were guilty ... of being women. As Elizabeth Cree notes “My gender becomes inured to injustice. We expect it, until we can greet it merely with a shrug”.
Through Cree, as played by Olivia Cooke, the film gives voice to many of the injustices women faced then (and, by extension, still face today) as well as exploring how the artifice of theatrical life can offer escape from that injustice, into fantasy; at least to some extent. But, the film is at pains to point out, even when we aren’t painted and performing on stage, we’re still pretending to be something we’re not.
|Kildare and Cree. You might be forgiven for thinking this is a romantic moment, were it not for the fact it's in a prison and he's the only man who thinks she's innocent of poisoning her husband.|
Nighy, whilst remaining a thoroughly Upper Class Brit in his diction and demeanour, has a deep vein of working-class dissent running through him, which enables him to bring both humour and humanity to Kildare. In interview, Nighy has confessed to finding his own performances mannered and twitchy (not his exact words, but you get the idea) well, here, he restrains the ticks and tricks he uses to make his characters loveable in his comedic roles, and grandiose in his Hollywood villain roles. Instead, he is dignified and serious; which is what the film needs at its centre.
Interestingly, Nighy was a last-minute replacement for Alan Rickman who was unavailable on account of being suddenly dead. This might explain why Kildare is, on the face of it, an unusual role for Nighy. But, for me, this makes him all the more engaging because, like his character, he's out of his comfort zone.
The novel on which this film is based was written by Peter Ackroyd, a historian who has spent much of his career unearthing the truth about the myths and legends of London. So, few writers would be better qualified to see the city in all its historical detail, yet filter that through a contemporary filter. Tales of faux Victorian skirt-lifting are very on trend at the moment, as are tales featuring unreliable narrators, psychogeography, the gothic, and mercurial sexual identity; so it’s clear to see why this novel has found its way to the screen, some 23 years after publication.
The story treads the line between fact and fiction. Even though I know a fair bit about Jack the Ripper, I had to research The Golem, to see if he, like the Ripper, was a historical killer, or one Ackroyd had invented (I’ll let you do the same research, rather than spoil your fun); what is certain, though, is that Ackroyd didn’t invent everyone in his cast. Dan Leno really was a celebrated music hall performed (although not at the time the novel is set) and writers like Karl Marx really did spend time in the British Library reading room.
Leno is introduced in full drag, on stage, playing a cheery dollymop, singing a rousing sing-along song about how she is subjected, daily, to domestic violence. All together now: “Baby, hit me one more time ...” Beyond that, though, Leno (as portrayed by Douglas Booth) comes across as a calming influence, one of the few people in the film who is comfortable in his own skin, presumably because he is one of the few people in the film who doesn’t pretend to be something he isn’t. Ironic, really.
|Jay Leno. The things he's been reduced to since leaving his chat show.|
The film has quite an audacious structure, layering the present with flashbacks which explain motivation and circumstance; but then, Ackroyd is a writer who, even in his non-fiction, is fascinated in the way that the past can poke through the skin of the present. Much as the suppressed passions of late Victorian men and women, such as unspoken homosexuality, unrequited love, cross-dressing, sexual identity and jealousy, all poke through the thin veneer of denial.
Added to this subtext, we have the various scenarios that Kildare imagines as his investigation proceeds, seen from the point of view of whichever suspect is in his sights at the time. This form of unreliable narrative helps keep fresh a story which, despite being set 140 years in the past, feels very contemporary.
|Nighy is intense and serious and compelling throughout. A laugh riot, this film certainly is not.|
Ackroyd understands the sociological role of the media and his characters do, too. We are told, at one point, “People love to see degradation upon the stage, it's what they pay for.” I couldn’t help but think of the tabloid front pages I walk past every day, the poverty-porn documentaries I flick past at night, and the endless tirade of social media.
All of this is brought to the screen with a chilly, gritty visual style by director Medina, who must have put together a pretty-good pitch, since his IMDB profile doesn’t suggest he had this film in him. He is, of course, aided and abetted by Jane Goldman (aka Jonathan Ross’ little woman ... ahem) who continues to make writing excellent, imaginative and compelling scripts seem effortless. Her experiences of being a woman in a traditionally male-dominated business will, no doubt, have added some gravel to the issues which underpin this movie.
There is a rage at the iniquities of Britain’s ingrained class system here, and at the miserable treatment of, particularly, women. That, it seems to me, is the main purpose of Victorian pastiche these days: to demonstrate what the entitlement and the immorality of the paternalistic elite once led to, and what the continued swing to Right in politics will, once again, lead to, for those unfortunate enough to not be white, rich, able-bodied, straight or male.
The Limehouse Golem is a tale of intersecting and overlapping unhappiness, and what it costs good people to do something about it. It is literally a misery junction!
|So, hang on ... If this film is about the injustices doled out to women, and empowerment, and the evils of a paternalistic society ... Why have I got to stand with my arse to the camera? I'm not Scarlett Johansson, you know!|
Dir: Juan Carlos Medina
Script: Jane Goldman
Dur: 105 mins