THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM

Empire (UK) - - ON.SCREEN - JONATHAN PILE

A SE­RIES OF rit­u­al­is­tic killings are baf­fling an in­com­pe­tent po­lice force in Vic­to­rian Lon­don. Sound at all fa­mil­iar? De­spite a small shift east­wards in ge­og­ra­phy (and one be­ing fic­tional), the Limehouse Golem and the Jack The Rip­per mur­ders have much in com­mon. Start­ing in 1880 (eight years be­fore Jack be­gan his “funny lit­tle game”), the Golem has chalked up five mur­ders by the time In­spec­tor John Kil­dare (Nighy) is brought onto the case and out of an en­forced ex­ile in the theft and fraud depart­ment.

He’s be­ing set up — a scape­goat for the in­creas­ingly ag­i­tated press to blame as Scot­land Yard pro­tects the rep­u­ta­tion of their top man. But he’s also good at what he does and, a few de­ci­phered clues later, he has a list of four sus­pects — Karl Marx (yes, the Karl Marx), Ge­orge Giss­ing (also a real his­tor­i­cal fig­ure), mu­sic hall leg­end Dan Leno (Booth) and failed play­wright John Cree (Reid). Cree’s the name that quickly stands out — he was poi­soned the day af­ter the most re­cent Golem mur­der, and his wife El­iz­a­beth (Cooke) is stand­ing trial for his mur­der. Can Kil­dare pull off the dual feat of solv­ing the Golem mur­ders while si­mul­ta­ne­ously sav­ing this in­no­cent woman from the gal­lows? Well, he’s go­ing to give it a damn good go.

All this es­tab­lished, the meat of the story is told via mess­ily placed flash­backs — some orig­i­nat­ing from the trial, oth­ers from Kil­dare’s sur­pris­ingly fre­quent and un­su­per­vised trips to El­iz­a­beth’s roomy jail cell. Much of this rem­i­nisc­ing takes us to a Lon­don mu­sic hall where we see El­iz­a­beth go from dogs­body to star and meet her doomed hus­band.

The film’s prob­lems stem from this struc­ture. Nighy is given the be­gin­nings of a char­ac­ter — he’s a great de­tec­tive, pre­vi­ously wronged by his col­leagues, and has ru­mours about his pri­vate life hang­ing over his head, but none of this is prop­erly ex­plored. In­stead, from this strong start point, Kil­dare is quickly re­duced to lit­tle more than a sto­ry­telling device — his pres­ence merely fa­cil­i­tat­ing the re­count­ing of El­iz­a­beth’s life story. And, con­veyed this way, the mur­der mystery is no mystery at all — the cul­prit be­ing so ob­vi­ous for so long, it may have well been re­vealed at the be­gin­ning like this was an episode of Columbo.

It’s in the slices of Vic­to­rian mu­sic hall life where the film is at its best, el­e­vated to the stan­dard of a Sun­day night TV drama. Bawdy songs are sung and off-colour jokes are told (all of which seem tame by to­day’s stan­dards), and they add pal­pa­ble energy to the en­gag­ingly soapy pro­ceed­ings of the play­ers’ re­la­tion­ships. Booth is es­pe­cially mem­o­rable as the troupe’s star and Olivia’s sur­ro­gate big brother.

There’s also glee taken in the the­atri­cal­ity of the Golem’s mur­ders. One vic­tim is sawn up, the head placed on an al­tar, while the limbs and torso are placed on the pews as a rapt au­di­ence for a macabre ser­mon. In an­other in­stance, a pe­nis is left as a book­mark in a vol­ume of Jewish folk­lore — the source of the press’ ‘Golem’ nick­name for the killer. But this fails to trans­late into an ef­fec­tive at­mos­phere. Where the vi­o­lence should shock or re­pel, it in­stead comes off as car­toon­ish, the film never suc­cess­fully cap­tur­ing the fear of the lo­cal pop­u­lace or the dan­ger po­ten­tially lurk­ing in Limehouse’s gas-lit streets. But while this is a prob­lem, tele­graph­ing its vil­lain, but be­liev­ing it hasn’t, is The Limehouse Golem’s great­est crime.

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