Reviewing a murder mystery without spoiling the big reveal of the whodunit is always tricky – on one hand, you want to give a complete overview of what works and what doesn’t but in order to do so requires making reference to the story’s conclusion. A murder mystery lives or dies based largely on its ability to deliver a satisfying and shocking reveal – stating that the film has a big twist or that the identity of the culprit is too easy to guess counts as a spoiler, as doing so provides the reader with some degree of knowledge in terms of what to look out for.
Therefore, all we can really say regarding Victorian horror The Limehouse Golem in that regard is that it works well as mystery…just. Based on the 1994 novel by Peter Ackroyd, the film details the investigation into a series of gruesome murders committed within the community of Limehouse, attributed to the titular monster from Judaic mythology. Assigned to the case is Inspector John Kildare (Bill Nighy), a shamed detective who is only given the case so as to have the blame pinned upon his record when it ultimately fails to turn up a suspect. As Kildare investigates though, he finds a connection to the eccentric Music Hall performer Dan Leno (Douglas Booth) and a widowed performer falsely accused of murder (Olivia Cooke).
Jane Goldman‘s screenplay is expertly nuanced and entertaining enough to captivate an audience, weaving gruesome murders and Victorian misery in with a more flamboyant and eccentric tale of a cross-dressing performance artist. And yet, the result is a frustrating film that relies too heavily on long bouts of narrated flashback as opposed to the actual police procedural elements. The scenes are necessary, but unfortunately long and mostly un-involving.
With barely much focus on the actual mystery for half of it’s running time, the film lacks in the way of tension, which has the unfortunate effect of sucking much of the fun out of proceedings. Bill Nighy is wonderfully brooding in the role of Kildare, but there’s so little actual attention paid to his character that he feels less of a lead and more of a supporting role.
Thus it falls to Olivia Cooke to take centre-stage, a triumph of casting that saves the film from becoming bland. Cooke displays vulnerability yet spirit in her role as the falsely-accused widow Elizabeth Cree, and is a delight to watch throughout. Supporting parts from the likes of Douglas Booth, Eddie Marsan and Daniel Mays are equally brilliant, their performances lending plenty of meat to the bones of a so-so grisly murder mystery that’s been high-jacked by another film altogether!
As it unfolds, The Limehouse Golem displays flashes of inspired brilliance, particularly in it’s visual flourishes and directorial choices. Some of these choices may get repetitive after a time, but throughout the film they provide the investigative elements and the Music Hall scenes with some interesting metaphoric imagery. Much of it is slight, but when it is used, it’s effective and enthralling.
Murder mysteries are most definitely tough to review (or they are at least in this spoiler-phobic critic’s viewpoint). To sum up why The Limehouse Golem is worth a watch despite its cons really relies on discussing the spoilers, an unfortunate juxtaposition that must surely keep many a critic awake at night. All we can really say is that the film is just about worth your time should you fancy a bit of grimy, gory Victoriana, though lower expectations are certainly required to get maximum satisfaction out of a slow and meandering tale such as this one.
The Limehouse Golem opens in UK Cinemas Friday 1st September.