I haven’t spent much time at the cinema this year, that is mostly because I have been so busy but also due to the proliferation of those dreadful in my opinion comic book movies which rather take over the big screen. It seems I’m not alone as attendances have been way down but in the last few weeks a number of more sophisticated outings have lured me back even if some are only minimally sophisticated. I’m talking about Baby Driver, Atomic Blonde and the Hitmans Bodyguard whilst two others a definitely more refined, Wind River which I saw today and The Limehouse Golem which though I watched it a week ago, still is prominent in my thoughts.
London has a long history and when you think of the city it is easy to imagine it in various guises, Roman, Viking, Medieval, Tudor, plague ridden and on fire, bombed out, Swinging Sixties and right up to the modern futuristic skyscape. Like Dr Who, everyone has their favourite incarnation and when it comes to London it is for so many that of Victorian London that grips the imagination.
No matter how the city changes, it will always be in essence somewhat match the opening lines of Bleak House.
Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes … Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city.
It doesn’t matter that the smoke and the soot and the fog have gone, that taxis no longer uses horses or that policemen no longer wear capes. The London of Dickens and Sherlock Holmes lives on along with that great villain more evil than any fictional character, Jack The Ripper.
The Limehouse Golem is in many ways inspired by Jack and the disputed diaries of James Maybrick. The city of London is gripped with fear as a serial killer – dubbed The Limehouse Golem – is on the loose and leaving cryptic messages written in his victim’s blood. With few leads and increasing public pressure, Scotland Yard assigns the case to Inspector Kildare (Bill Nighy) – a seasoned detective with a troubled past and a sneaking suspicion he’s being set up to fail. Faced with a long list of suspects, including music hall star Dan Leno (Douglas Booth), Kildare must get help from a witness who has legal troubles of her own (Olivia Cooke), so he can stop the murders and bring the killer to justice. Also worthy of note is Daniel Mays who ably pulls off hard-working George Flood who works with the Inspector on this ghastly case.
The story follows Scotland Yard detective John Kildare who is aptly portrayed by Bill Nighy. Everything about the detective is just right; the articulate way he speaks, the wonderful clothing and purposeful strides through some of the smartest and grottiest parts of Victorian London. He has a rather mercurial sense of humour as he methodoligcally goes through the clues as each and every murder is unleashed whilst remaining private about his career. He is a greatly respected man, but one who will likely never get the position he deserves thanks to suspicions of “not being the marrying kind”.
Indeed, his newest case, finding the Jack the Ripper-esque Limehouse Golem, is set up to fail. No one can crack this one, so when he comes up blank it will be easy to pin the blame on the unfortunate detective. However, a new angle unfolds when the husband of a famous musical hall actress turns up poisoned, and she is blamed. Kildare suspects that he was actually the wanted Golem, and that he topped himself out of guilt. If he can prove this, he’s got his monster, and he also saves an innocent woman from the gallows.
The film has two additional areas which it deals with. The first and one which is brought back to life in incredible detail is that of an old fashioned music hall and local theatre company. Even though I greatly enjoyed the horror aspects of the film and the wonderful outdoor sets, it was the atmosphere of the music hall that I most enjoyed. It was all so evocative and easy to see why the masses would use these as the television of their century.
The other area the film takes a glancing look at is the idea and satisfaction that men have in ‘saving women’. It could almost be said to be a little of a feminist film, especially given the ending.
Elizabeth (Olivia Cooke), who is as much the main character as Nighy’s detective, is the accused music hall star who comes from humble roots working as a sailcloth sewer. She had an abusive mother who, while it is left a little vague, scars her in a manner such that she remains disinterested in sex as an adult. What does move her is acting, which she somewhat falls into after becoming a stagehand with a company led by the comedian/singer/drag artist Dan Leno and the seemingly charitable Uncle. Indeed it is one of just many shocks when Uncle is revealed to not be quite as saintly as imagined.
After one of their troupe (a lewd dwarf) dies in an accident, Elizabeth puts on one of his costumes and improvises a bit as a “salty sailor”. It’s a swift success and suddenly she is co-headlining the show. As her star rises she meets a young scholar and would-be playwright called John Cree, who we may remember from the film’s opening framing device as her dead husband.
The tale is told in flashback as Kildare questions Elizabeth to formulate a defence, but he’s also interrogating other suspects so he can prove the late John Cree guilty by process of elimination. Due to some smart deductions and some written notes it transpires that The Limehouse Golem has to be one of the few people who were in the British Museum reading room on a certain date. If you don’t think Karl Marx was a serial killer then the number of suspects is reduced by one.
As Kildare approaches each suspect he tests their handwriting and we get to see how the detective envisions each character committing a gruesome murder. It is, decidely, amusing to see the ridiculously bearded Karl Marx with an overblown German-Jewish accent, saw someone’s head off.
There are a lot of twists and turns in the plot, and I found most of them quite satisfying. The performances of the actors are tremendous especially from Oliva Cooke who creates a richly sympathetic character. It is this character that her husband obsesses over and this is why he spends most of their time together writing a play about his idealised vision of her, and how he fits in as her saviour. The problem comes when fantasy and reality fail to meet and as you might imagine it doesn’t end well.
The mix between the cold grey execution cells, the scary darkness of the foggy streets of Limehouse on the banks of the Thames and the warm, inviting and extravagent music hall seperates this film from other similar films.
I’m a big horror fan and have been since I watched Halloween about 11 years underage with my likely rather scared Mother. It is hard to find a good horror these days as most as stylized teenage ripper tales where the horror gets watered down. This isn’t a horrific film but it does take the genre somewhat seriously and comes across very much as an updated Hammer Horror type film.
It must be said that there is a great twist at the end of the film and I personally think it might be the best twist in a horror film if not any film since The Sixth Sense. Whilst not quite at that level, I totally didn’t expect it and I’m the person who predicted the twists in Arrival within minutes of the start of the film. Perhaps it was because I walk along some of the streets, I spent some of the time working out where the filming locations were but I don’t think so as I was so engulfed in the film itself. They even re-created long lost city landmarks which even most Londoners wouldn’t know about as oppose to the Hitmans Bodyguard whose route through the city made absolutely no sense whatsoever.
I heartily recommend the film which has nationwide release in the UK and has limited release in the USA and elsewhere but also available for download too.