On the surface, “The Limehouse Golem” seems like just another Victorian murder mystery, a Sherlockian tribute act riffing off the legend of Jack The Ripper but it’s what beneath the surface, behind the façade that drives the narrative and gives it a thematic power which helps it rise above its clichéd although handsomely executed trappings.
A series of brutal and grisly murders has shaken the community of Limehouse in Victorian London and Scotland Yard assigns Inspector John Kildare (Bill Nighy) to identify the culprit and bring them to justice. When music-hall star Elizabeth Cree (Olivia Cooke) is accused of poisoning her husband on the same night as the last Golem murders, Kildare discovers evidence linking Cree to the Golem murders and determines to solve both cases before Elizabeth is hanged for her crime.
From the flamboyant and enigmatic music hall impresario Dan Leno (Douglas Booth) to Inspector Kildare himself, the film is as much a treatise about dramatis personae as it is a pulpy penny dreadful. Positively dripping in macabre ambience, the plot provides a satisfyingly complicated series of intertwining unreliable narratives keep you on your toes while the ongoing trial gives a real sense of the ticking clock as the story leaps nimbly between present day and flashbacks like Spring Heeled Jack himself. There’s also a fascinatingly anti-Holmsian emotionalism to Inspector Kildare’s investigation, clouding his intellectual rigour and compromising his deductive reasoning in interesting ways. Behind the respectable facades presented by nearly all of the characters skulk their true selves, their sexualities and secrets repressed by and hidden because of the demands of society at large, giving the narrative a rich complexity which keeps you guessing until the final, twisted revelations.
Bill Nighy makes a fine Victorian detective, but it’s in Olivia Cooke and Douglas Booth the film provides its most intriguing characters. The production values are excellent, recreating the grimy and dark Victorian London of collective imagination perfectly with Director Juan Carlos Medina deftly walking a fine line between atmospheric Victoriana and gratuitous Guignol. Ultimately, though, the true horror of this gothic tragedy is not in its grisly and gruesome murders but in the implacably cruel Victorian patriarchy which holds the lives of both the inspector and Elizabeth Cree in its vice-like grip.