The Limehouse Golem review – a big helmet with lots of makeup – 3/5

The Limehouse Golem is a Ripperesque throat-slasher stuffed full of London fog, grubby horse-drawn coaches, grimy cockney characters and naïve prostitutes with dirt smeared on their faces. Was it ever clean in London?

It stars Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke and Douglas Booth, ably supported by a bald Eddie Marsan who steals scenes and Daniel Mays who wears a big helmet.

Directed by Juan Carlos Medina , based on the book by Peter Ackroyd, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem and with a screenplay by Jane Goldman, the film is a convergence of two storylines: a series of explicitly gory and unsolved murders in olde London-town and the trial of a musical hall comedienne Lizzie Cree (Cooke) who is accused of murdering her failed playwright husband. Drawing these strands together is Inspector John Kildare (Nighy) and his sidekick, Constable George Flood (Mays).

Plot-wise, the requisite twists, turns and red herrings of any self-respecting whodunit are all in place, along with the bold device of the audience seeing each suspect in situ as the murderer, but what really keeps us guessing is how much was the makeup bill? Most of it is slapped on the musical hall mentor and star turn, Dan Leno (Booth), but there’s plenty left over for everybody else. My tip for any school-leaver is to forget university, get into the makeup supply business and win a contract for films based in Victorian London. You’ll be on velvet for the rest of your life.

For me, despite the calibre of the cast and crew, it’s the plot-driven narrative that is the film’s weakness (unless you like people being cut up with knives in which case it’s all great). Yes, it keeps us guessing but is that enough? I think it’s reasonable to expect more of the character-driven strands to be developed, such as Kildare’s past victimisation (just say he’s gay and be done with it) and his relationship with his sidekick Flood (just say he’s gay and be done with it), or the way in which the claustrophobic dynamics within the theatre’s ‘family’ worked. Otherwise, why mention them?

The characters are, with the notable exceptions of Lizzie Cree and Dan Leno, thinly drawn. I doubt Flood is meant to be a Watson to Kildare’s Holmes but even so, Daniel Mays must be wondering what is the point of his character other than to take the weight of his considerable headgear. Remove Constable Flood from the film and nothing changes. But it’s Inspector John Kildare who gets most of my sympathy. No DNA sampling, no crime scene forensics, no computers – and he’s being played by Bill Nighy.

Olivia Cooke and Douglas Booth are fascinating to watch on screen because they bring something of the human condition to their characters – but with Bill Nighy the acting is in what he doesn’t do – which is act. With Bill it’s all about the twitches, stares, stiff movements and The Face. The joy is watching Bill Nighy ‘be’. He is a character in his own right who simply has lots of different jobs: louche academic, resurgent pop singer, ageing lover and now a Victorian policeman, Inspector Bill Nighy.

As the credits rolled I was left with a feeling that the likes of TV’s Sherlock and Ripper Street have done this sort of thing to death, and done it well, and that this film needed to be something really special to justify its big screen status, something more than just a neat tale. Sadly, it’s not. I think more bald men and smaller helmets might be called for. And makeup. Lots more makeup.

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About James Ellis

Currently editing my first novel, The Wrong Story.
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