REVIEW: The Limehouse Golem
– By Allan Lear
Peter Ackroyd is, I confess, an author with whom I have no acquaintance at all. It doesn’t help that for some reason I was under the impression that Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (one name of the source novel, sensibly reduced for its cinematic byblow; the less sensationalist The Trial of Elizabeth Cree never stood a chance) was written by Dan Simmons, a novelist who specialises in long, waffly, somewhat disappointing books about real-life Victorian novelists getting caught up in spooky crime nonsense.
Ackroyd seems to be a man who has parlayed an indiscriminate passion for all things English-historical into a career as a poet, fiction/non-fiction writer and general book bloke as well as a CBE for Services to Posh Writing. Frankly the world needs more people who give a shit about something and make a living out of knowing things about it, so good for him. He’s like the opposite of a career politician.
The Limehouse Golem is that most English of film genres, the Victorian Ripper story. Bill Nighy’s dogged, principled detective, sidekicked by Daniel Mays as a streetwise constable, race to solve a series of overenthustiastic murders carried out by the eponymously pseudonymous serial murderer in the hope that the solution will rescue a woman from the hangman’s noose. Jane Goldman (Kickass) takes on the job of editing Ackroyd’s prose down to feature film length and has brought a three hundred page novel in at under two hours of screen time, which is pretty much bang on what you want.
Director Juan Carlos Medina (Painless) and team do a fine job of recreating the dirty, claustrophobic streets of old London’s rookeries as a cast composed of a welter of fine British character actors get to dress up and play at being Victorians. The smallest roles in the film are filled out with actors who could hold a television series together all on their own. From Eddie Marsan as the kindly proprietor of a theatre troupe, through Paul Ritter popping up as a pompous librarian, via Henry Goodman’s cough-and-spit as Karl Marx and down to Clive Russell’s welcome cameo as a prison guard, the casting director has admirably chosen to ground the somewhat off-kilter proceedings with a strength-in-depth approach which ensures suspension of disbelief is never threatened by a misplaced turn.
Speaking of acting, though, the film is largely dominated by Olivia Cooke as the alternatively-titular Mrs Cree, on trial for her life under suspicion of poisoning her wonkily emotional husband who may, or may not, have been the Golem. Cooke’s face is a perfect fit for the role, her huge and expressive eyes perfectly modelling the ingénue whose life experiences, as recounted at trial, reveal the endless depth of suffering which an innocent woman can encounter through the silly mistake of having been born poor. It’s tempting to feel relieved that such dreadful things don’t happen today except that, human nature being what it is, they do. And then they wind up on the internet. Anyway, Cooke’s job is a balancing act between vulnerability and the inner steel of a survivor, and she makes an excellent fist of it.
A particularly strong performance is also delivered by Douglas Booth, an actor whom I have seen in various things before (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, for instance) but who has never made the slightest impact on my consciousness. That changed with this film, in which Booth channels his fine cheekbones and quiet intelligence into a captivating portrayal of Dan Leno, a real-life stand-up comedian from the Victorian music halls. Scenes of louche relaxation with a book and a barbed wit are juxtaposed with his wild-eyed stage persona, which, as he flings himself around in drag and pontificates with outlandish diction, has clearly been at least somewhat modelled on Russell Brand. In contrast to Nighy’s buttoned-up detectorist, Booth is the emotional core to the story, a sensitive and vulnerable presence who leaks sympathetic chemistry with Cooke. The presence of a theatre troupe also enables the film to present the necessary contrast between your stiff-collared middle classes and yer ‘eart-of-gold rough diamonds gor blimey salt-of-the-earf Cokerney guttershites – without which no film set in this milieu would be complete – and to dump a massive clue to the whodunit aspect in the literal background.
There has been criticism in some quarters of The Limehouse Golem for taking itself far too seriously, made by professional film critics who therefore ought to know better or, at least, be flogged. Golem is in aesthetic exactly what it apes: a Victorian melodrama, a grand guignol production straight out of the yellowback penny dreadfuls like The String of Pearls (better known to modern-day audiences by its nom de theatre, Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street). It’s played straight, because you don’t play melodrama for laughs: you let the laughs come from the incongruity between the serious acting and the ludicrous situations. To Jeanette Catsoulis of the New York Times, amongst others, allow me to say: duh! Marsan’s theatre troupe perform Bluebeard on stage – how much more of a clue do you need?
One thing that irked me slightly was the elision of the Jewish question; England in the mid-1800s, after all, was not a great place or time to be a Jew and the Hebraic connection that the word “golem” conjured up is barely explored. Karl Marx gets to have a minor fulminate that seems like the start of an interesting philosophical diversion but doesn’t go anywhere; cut down, one hopes, from a more thorough treatment in the book. The poorest student of Ripperology knows that one of Jack’s crime scenes was daubed with the graffito, “The Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing” [sic] – the parallel is latent but never explored.
Of course the biggest question of the film is: does it miss Alan Rickman? The late and much-lamented Mr Rickman was originally slated to play the lead detective, but his declining health led to him pulling out of the production and Bill Nighy stepping in. Despite this, poster art with Rickman’s face is still in circulation.
The answer is that the film does miss him, but not to the extent that it might have done. Nighy is a versatile character actor and brings both a rough charm and a vulnerability to the role that serve to keep us rooting for him to pull off his race against the gallows. What he lacks, however, is the air of menace that Rickman projected when he chose, which made him a suitable villain in Die Hard but which, in the context of Golem, could have been turned inwards to give us a protagonist at war with the darker angels of his nature. Nighy, by contrast, is somewhat too affable a presence even when he plays a cold reserve.
Quibbles and cavilling aside, however, I enjoyed The Limehouse Golem’s afternoon house sufficiently that I was ready to take my wife to see it again for the evening performance. An atmospheric evocation of the moral and literal slums of old London town, it succeeds in the principle aim of the melodrama: it keeps you watching to see what entertainingly dreadful thing is going to happen next.