Murder. Sex. Blood. All are key aspects of the Penny Dreadful; those tales of macabre scandal which entertained the masses during the Victorian era. It was never the highest form of literature, but it didn’t try to be. On the surface The Limehouse Golem has the makings of a really fun and potentially atmospheric period murder mystery; an interesting story, a great cast, a script by genre writing powerhouse Jane Goldman, who previous wrote The Woman in Black, Stardust, and others. Unfortunately the result just ends up being a very unfulfilling experience.
Before Jack the Ripper stalked the streets of Whitechapel, London is terrorised by the vicious and mysterious Limehouse Golem. Inspector John Kildare (Bill Nighy) is given the task of catching the killer, although there is little faith behind him from his superiors. Meanwhile a young woman, Elizabeth Cree (Olivia Cooke), is on trial for the murder of her husband (Sam Reid). How do these two cases link? What are the secrets that lie in the back corridors of the music hall? And will Inspector Kildare be able to find the truth before it is too late?
There are moments when this movie works. When it is relishing in its macabre, trashy, gory roots, the movie can be effective and even entertaining. Bill Nighy gives a great and compelling central performance as inspector Kildare. Dogged by rumours of his personal life he is desperate to prove himself despite being very aware that he has been given the Golem case to act as a scapegoat when he, as far as his superiors are concerned, inevitably fails to solve it. In fact the entire main cast are decent, although Douglas Booth’s accent as real music hall star Dan Leno is shaky and fooling absolutely nobody.
The problem is that nothing in the movie has anything resembling lasting impact. So much of the plot is concerned with Elizabeth Cree’s backstory and while that is necessary and could be really fascinating and gives us, and Kildare, the clues we need to solve the mystery, the movie slows down to an absolute crawl with each flashback. These sections are so distinct and cut so awkwardly I do wonder if it is a holdover from the chapter structure of the original novel by Peter Ackroyd. It is very confusing at times what age Lizzie is supposed to be during these parts. At one point we are told that something happened when she was a teenager but this wasn’t very clear when said 14-year-old is played by the very clearly 23-year-old Olivia Cooke. There is almost something here about underestimating women, but it never manages to land.
Everything concerning the real people; Dan Leno, Karl Marx, and George Gissing, feels pointless. No impression is ever given that any of these men – with the possible exception of Dan Leno – could have actually committed the crimes so their inclusion is nothing more than padding. The ultimate conclusion could have potentially worked really well, but by the time it comes it is hard to care about anything that is happening anymore. Kildare’s story and point-of-view is the more compelling one and has these odd little moments of the character talking to his own thoughts to work through the case. I would have preferred more of that in the film because then at least it would have been actually trying something.
On a technical side of things sound mixing is something that you only know is being done well because you don’t notice it. Here it is starkly noticeable with bad line re-recordings standing out and messy background sound levels. It’s just badly put together on just about every level and whilst I don’t want to lay all the blame at the feet of director Juan Carlos Medina, maybe this was a bit too ambitious a project, requiring careful construction, for his second feature film.
The Limehouse Golem is a borderline tedious affair, never reaching the potential of any of its parts.
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