The Limehouse Golem (2016)

Starring: Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke, Douglas Booth, Eddie Marsan, Sam Reid, Daniel Mays, Maria Valverde

Directed by: Juan Carlos Medina

Rating: 1 2 3 4 5

'Here we are again!'

So goes the catchphrase of legendary Victorian music hall comedian Dan Leno, who plays a key role in Grand Guignol shocker The Limehouse Golem.

Douglas Booth as Dan Leno in The Limehouse Golem

And indeed, here we are again, in the murky late 19th century London of Jack the Ripper, Jekyll and Hyde, Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, where impeccably dressed gents rub shoulders with drunken whores and death lurks round every corner, glittering knife in hand. But does The Limehouse Golem have anything to add to the pea soup?

Hell yeah!

Based on Peter Ackroyd's haunting and unsettling novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, the film begins, as all good unstable narratives should, at the end, and works backwards.

Elizabeth Cree (Olivia Cooke) stands accused of poisoning her husband, John. If she cannot prove her innocence, she will hang for the crime. Yet even the bloodthirsty London public only has half an eye on her scandalous case; instead their attention is gripped by the gory tale of the Limehouse Golem, a gruesome serial killer whose grisly, seemingly random crimes have shocked and fascinated the city.

As Scotland Yard flounders, the case is passed to Inspector John Kildare (Bill Nighy), dragged from his usual role investigating theft and fraud to front the case and take the fall when he fails to catch the killer. But Kildare quickly sees a link between the case of Lizzie, a former music hall star with Leno's company, and the mysterious golem. And so unravels a torrid tale of abuse, deception, exploitation and death in which everyone is wearing a mask and no-one is quite what they seem.

Bill Nighy and Olivia Cooke in The Limehouse Golem

Because really the film is all about performance and pretence. The spectacle of murder is collated with the spectacle of theatre, the public revelling in every detail of the golem's theatrically staged crimes through the newspapers (crowds of reporters dog Kildare's every move like Victorian paparazzi) then vicariously experiencing similar monstrosities in the music halls, in shows like Leno's horror comedy Bluebeard. John Cree has immortalised his wife Lizzie's life in a sensationalist melodrama, Misery Junction. Leno's brash, cross-dressing, on-stage persona hides a sensitive, thoughtful soul, yet beneath this lies an utterly ruthless streak: the show must go on at any price; Kindly Uncle, the theatre manager (brilliantly played by Eddie Marsan sporting some top tattoos) hides a deviant dark side. Even Kildare has a secret: he is 'not the marrying kind', a reputation that has cost him his career.

Eddie Marsan as Uncle in The Limehouse Golem

And, as you'd hope in a film that's all about acting, the performances are great. Aside from Nighy (who's superb, conveying as much through what he doesn't say and what he does – a clenched jaw, knotted fingers or steely glance speaking monologues) and Marsan, none of the actors are particularly well known, yet all are outstanding, in particular Olivia Cooke as Lizzie and Douglas Booth as the mercurial, many-faceted Leno.

The film is wonderfully stylish too, plunging us head first into London's grimy underworld of prostitutes, opium dens and predatory threat; from the tawdry glitter of the music halls to the chaos backstage, the staginess of the sets perfectly reflects the film's themes.

All in all a gorgeously gothic, entrancing, witty and gripping film with a sparkling script by Jane Goldman that, as you'd hope in a film set in the world of theatre and comedy, glitters with one line gems. Okay so some of Kildare's revelatory detective work makes you wonder what on earth his investigating predecessor was playing at, and it doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to work out whodunnit by the end. I should probably also point out that for those of a delicate constitution, the gore quota is fairly high. But nothing is gratuitious and there are twists and turns galore, culminating in a breathtakingly thrilling finale.

Here we are again? Yes, and it's a delight to be here.

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