As busy and artificial as Victorian decor at its most excessive, “The Limehouse Golem” is similarly rather too much of a posh good thing. This adaptation of Peter Ackroyd’s 1994 novel “Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem” (published in the U.S. as “The Trial of Elizabeth Cree”) is a baroque mixture of actual historical figures, fictional characters, multi-tiered flashbacks and a two-pronged criminal intrigue that encompasses both a domestic poisoning and grisly serial murders in 1880 London.
Juan Carlos Medina’s second feature (and first English-language one, after the 2012 European co-production “Insensibles”) sports nary a dull moment — there’s no time for them, nor for much in the way of the richer character detailing this material cries for. It’s hard not to wonder how much better the cluttered results might have played as a miniseries, particularly given that TV has excelled at just such ambitious mystery-driven genre mashups of late. It remains to be seen whether audiences, now accustomed to finding such densely plotted thrills on the small screen, will turn up for this big-screen effort — particularly in the U.S., where some very thick lower-class English accents may prove a hurdle.
When erstwhile journalist-turned-failed playwright John Cree (Sam Reid) is found dead in his bed, suspicion falls upon wife Elizabeth (Olivia Cooke), the former “Little Lizzie” of music hall fame. They were known to be in marital straits, and she habitually prepared the sleeping draught that this time apparently included a deadly additive. At the same time, John Kildare (Bill Nighy) — a minor Scotland Yard Inspector whose career is hobbled by rumors of homosexuality — is newly put on the hunt for the so-called “Limehouse Golem.” It’s an unenviable assignment, as that notorious Ripper-like killer’s identity has already eluded far more illustrious colleagues.
The two crime trails almost immediately turn into one, with Kildare quickly discovering many overlaps. He also develops an underdog sympathy for the imprisoned Mrs. Cree, who climbed from dreadful poverty and abuse to success and respectability, only now to be publicly pilloried as a femme fatale. The life story she relates to Kildare sees an orphan taken under the wing of Dan Leno (Douglas Booth), a real-life music hall comedy sensation portrayed here as mostly famed for cross-dressing roles. In time she became a stage star herself, variably helped or hindered by fellow board-treaders including kindly stage manager “Uncle” (Eddie Marsan), salacious pint-sized “Little Victor” (Graham Hughes) and vampy “Acrobatic Aveline” (Maria Valverde), the latter Lizzie’s jealous rival for male attention. Principal among the beaus was Cree, who was diverted from the more experienced charms of Aveline by this younger, still-“innocent” survivor of brutal hardship.
Meanwhile in the present day, Kildare’s investigations alongside amiable working-class Constable Flood (Daniel Mays) unite the two cases: Not only does John Cree emerge as a suspect in the gruesome Limehouse Golem murders (so named after the rough district where they’ve taken place, and a Jewish folkloric figure referenced by both press and perp), but he shared puzzling overlaps with others who may have committed the crimes. Joining him in that unwelcome company is Leno as well as two other actual historical figures, expat Prussian political theorist Karl Marx (Henry Goodman) and socially conscious English novelist George Gissing (Morgan Watkins). As Kildare imagines the Golem’s horrific acts — which so far have been visited on everyone from streetwalkers to a Talmudic scholar and one entire family household — he pictures each of these men in the guilty role.
That’s just a hasty outline of a plot so packed with incident and explication that there scarcely seems a moment here that’s not hurtling forward — albeit sometimes, as our detective protagonist gets led astray, in red-herring directions. That means nearly all the characterizations must be rendered in broad strokes by a cast expert enough to make one wish it had more room to stretch out. (“Golem” is dedicated to the late Alan Rickman, whose pancreatic cancer forced him to cede the lead role to the able Nighy.) Among support turns, Marsen’s wry restraint is especially welcome. Cooke (who gets an opportunity to show off her fine, stage-trained singing voice) is competent if ultimately not quite inspired enough in what turns out by far to be the most demanding role.
Too often Jane Goldman’s screenplay feels like a breathless, talkative condensation rather than an interpretation of Ackroyd’s imaginative concept, straining to fit every bit of a very tricky tale into a two-hour frame. It’s a credit to all concerned that the results work as well as they do; but they always have an air of best-possible-polish put on a Rube Goldbergian machine whose idiosyncrasies seem more ungainly than they might’ve in a more leisurely format.
Adding to the sense of compressed-narrative claustrophobia, Medina’s lively presentation seems almost entirely studio-bound, with very few daylight exteriors and a flavorful but stagy feel to the overall production design. That might be a deliberate choice to underline the story’s theatrical themes, but such subtler motifs tend to get buried in the headlong clutter. (There is room for enough gore to guarantee an R rating, however, in addition to some nudity from Valverde.) Nonetheless, all tech and design contributions are high-grade, though budgetary limits can be perceived in the fact that the music hall which makes Dan Leno and “Little Lizzie” the purported toasts of London appears a venue of exceedingly modest scale.