The Limehouse Golem (2016)

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

Before the Ripper, a sinister series of murders shocked London... that's the premise for this twisty Victorian thriller with a double-surprise ending that is equal parts tawdry and thriller, but has a terrific cast to balance out its peculiarities.

Shopkeepers with their throats cut. Whores torn open. Severed heads. A Jewish man bludgeoned to death, and sinister messages scrawled in blood. When a serial killer known as the Golum terrorizes the Limehouse District, the investigation falls to John Kildare (Bill Nighy). Left with not much evidence but several suspects, Kildare believes a woman on death row, Lizzie (Olivia Cooke), can shed light into these events. She ran in the same circles as his prime suspects -- and is accused of murdering one of them, John Cree (Sam Reed). The evasive Lizzie refuses to tell him much, but he continues to visit her in prison and attend her trial, while following several leads.

The murders tie into a series of events at the local theater, where the charismatic stage performer Dan Leno (Douglas Booth) is the main attraction. For a few pennies a week, Londoners can watch a show or three, from comedy to dramatics and musicals. But as Kildare draws closer to a conclusion, the case threatens to suck him into its depths as he unravels depravity, abuse, and the seedy underside of Lizzie's world... and finds the truth difficult to bear.

A Sherlock Holmes mystery, this is not. This is a world where a child assumes Kildare wants something from her other than information and tells him he cannot have her, because "Mother is saving me for another man on my next birthday." Where a woman is shamed because her mother was a whore, and she had "experience" with men as a child. Where theater managers sexually harass their actresses for 'favors' in exchange for fame. Where men can force their wives and no one cares. It's claustrophobic and smoky inside the theater, and frightening in the dark side streets. London is crowded and realistic in its constant labor, slow hansom cabs, and the sallow-eyed children in the gutters. The acting is solid; Kildare is a likable investigator with perhaps too much heart, and Lizzie is an interesting and psychologically complex lead. Douglas Booth is also terrific as the good-natured, compassionate, and open-minded performer who believes above all else, "the show must go on."

The costumes are marvelous, although they're not the main focus. The pace holds up well, but the film can be confusing at times; the flashbacks are less problematic than that we're thrust into the narrative with little background or build up, but the script does leave small clues throughout that lead to the twist near the end, followed by another twist. It manages to present enough alternate possibilities to keep the audience guessing almost to the end. It's an intricate enough plot, I may watch it again to better follow the threads, but it also felt unnecessarily tawdry at times due to the nudity. You can hint at depravity without showing it, and this film so often leaves nothing to the imagination that it becomes more a penny dreadful than a subtle Victorian thriller.

Sexual Content:
Brief shots of topless women dressing behind the stage in a theater; a woman is topless several times (a dwarf sits down to watch her change clothes) and is shown nude from the back once; a man shows a woman his collection of 'art' house photographs that include nude women spanking men and asks her to spank him; a woman tells her husband she does not want to consummate the marriage and he forces her (noises, thrusting); she hires a maid to sexually please him (she overhears their loud lovemaking, and watches them through a crack in the door); a man puts his hand between a woman's legs and she twists his wrist; some on-stage innuendo; a man tells a woman that if she likes women instead of men, he's fine with that.
 
Language:
One f-word, one abuse of Jesus' name, occasional profanities.
 
Violence:
Gruesome murder scenes -- blood spattered across walls, severed heads, entrails torn out, etc. We see murders in flashbacks / imaged scenarios (throats being cut, vicious stabbings, the perp spattered in blood, a man being smothered, another kicked down a flight of stairs); an actor is hanged / dies during a fake hanging due to a stage accident; a man slaps a woman.

Other:
None.