It's not very common for a film to make it all the way into cinemas without me seeing a reasonable amount of publicity for it – if it's a film that falls within my (fairly undiscriminating) area of interest, anyway. And yet this is what happened with Juan Carlos Medina's The Limehouse Golem. Two questions obviously leap to mind – why did your correspondent go and see it, based on nothing but a title, a cast list, and a vague capsule description? And is it genuinely receiving some kind of stealth release, or can the producers just not be bothered to pay for an ad campaign?
Second things first – and the honest answer is, I'm not sure. The film had its world premiere nearly a year ago, and while twelve months isn't an exceptional period of time for a film to sit on the shelf, it doesn't really indicate a distributor bursting with confidence either. I've commented in the past on the fact that trailers tend to appear before a film of the same general kind, and The Limehouse Golem is an extremely tough movie to categorise in some ways – is it a period detective story, a grisly splatter horror movie, or a slightly more niche drama? The other question is a little easier to answer – we're going through a quiet period release-wise at present, I'm loath to waste an afternoon off by not going to the cinema, and this looked like it might be agreeably Hammer horror-ish. Which, I have to say, only goes to show...
The movie is based on the book Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, by the noted authority on all things Londonian Peter Ackroyd – which seems to be one of those novels which flaunts its erudition by including all manner of historical figures as characters, some famous, some much more obscure. On some level I suppose this therefore qualifies as another Victoriana mash-up, along the lines of Anno Dracula or Dickensian, but it's less user-friendly than either of those.
The year is 1880 and Londoners are living in fear as a savage, brutal killer walks amongst them, slaughtering prostitutes, Jews, and whole families, seemingly at will. Installed as the fall guy on this challenging case is police detective Inspector Kildare (Bill Nighy), along with his sidekick PC Flood (Daniel Mays). Kildare's investigations lead him to the reading room of the British Museum and a list of four men, one of whom must surely be the killer who has been given the nickname of the Limehouse Golem.
However, one of the suspects has recently died in suspicious circumstances, and his widow Elizabeth (Olivia Cooke) is on trial for his murder. Is there a connection? Kildare finds himself obliged to delve into the history of a string of grisly murders, while trying to uncover the truth about Elizabeth and her own unsettling personal history...
I am sure that Peter Ackroyd is a very erudite man. However, the screenplay for this movie was written by Jane Goldman, and while I'm sure she has many fine qualities, erudition and subtlety are not necessarily the ones that immediately leap to mind based on her previous work (Kingsman, The Woman in Black, Kick-Ass). How to best describe The Limehouse Golem? Well, one thing you can say about it is that it is never knowingly under-wrought.
Another is that there is something genuinely refreshing about a film which so comprehensively cuts loose from normal conventions of movie storytelling. There were whole sequences in this film which had me slack-jawed and goggling at the screen, confounded by the sheer audacity and weirdness of the thing. Is it a period procedural about a set of murders clearly intended to suggest the Ripper killings of 1888? Or is it a rather different kind of film about a young woman's rise from extreme poverty to success in the music halls of Victorian London, and the pressures on her even after becoming a star? The film ping-pongs back and forth between them like a cross between a particularly gory slasher film and an episode of The Good Old Days (younger readers, ask your grandparents).
If this movie were a pudding submitted for the Great British Pudding Showdown, I rather imagine that the first note from the judges would be 'Easy on the eggs in future'. It opens at such a pitch of near-strangulated tension that really finds itself with virtually nowhere else to go, and practically the whole film takes place with every element – script, performances, direction – elevated to an extreme level; naturalistic this movie is definitely not. At one point there's a particularly startling sequence in which Karl Marx – yes, that Karl Marx – dressed up in a top hat and cape, saws the head off a prostitute. And this is not much more startling than most of the rest of the movie, which is stuffed with baroque dialogue, double-entendre-laden musical numbers, dwarfs, transvestitism, kinky sexual practices, severed body parts, and repressed libidos. There also seems to be some sort of LGBT subtext going on here, but as this is the one element of the film not rammed into the audience's frontal lobe, it's a little difficult to tell what message it's trying to communicate beyond the obvious and pedestrian one.
Does it actually work as a movie, though? Well, you can always rely on Bill Nighy to deliver a superb performance, and I'm starting to think the same is also true of Olivia Cooke, who has never failed to impress me in any of the films I've seen her in. In terms of simple production values, British companies are simply very good at this kind of late-Victorian period piece. The Limehouse Golem is never less than arresting viewing, and rattles along energetically. But, at the same time, the film is so all over the place that I'm not quite sure what it wants to be or say, and it does feature the kind of plot twist which is simultaneously outrageously unbelievable and rather predictable.
In the end, The Limehouse Golem is really not very much like a Hammer horror film, but neither is it much like anything else I can remember seeing recently, either. There are lots of good things going on here, along with much that is baffling, some that is startling, and a few things that are actively silly. In the end the whole confection is probably a bit too bizarre and phantasmagorical to really succeed as a movie, but you could certainly argue that this is one of those movies where the incidental pleasures of the journey just about make up for the fact that the destination isn't anything particularly special.