×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Toronto Film Review: ‘The Limehouse Golem’

A Ripper-like killer terrorizes Victorian London in this colorful, cluttered thriller.

With:
Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke, Douglas Booth, Daniel Mays, Sam Reid, Maria Valverde, Henry Goodman, Paul Ritter, Morgan Watkins, Peter Sullivan, Eddie Marsan, Graham Hughes, Henry Goodman, Morgan Watkins.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4733640/

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.

Toronto Film Review: 'The Limehouse Golem'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation), Sept. 10, 2016. Running time: 109 MIN.

Production: (U.K.) A New Sparta Films presentation in association with HanWay Films, LipSync and Day Tripper Films of a Stephen Woolley/Elizabeth Karlsen/Number 9 Films production. (International sales: HanWay Films, London.) Producers: Stephen Woolley, Elizabeth Karlsen, Joanna Laurie. Executive producers: Jane Goldman, Thorsten Schumacher, Zygi Kamasa, Norman Merry, Peter Hampden, Nikki Hattingh, Christopher Simon, Anne Sheehan. Co-producer, Caroline Levy.

Crew: Director: Juan Carlos Medina. Screenplay: Jane Goldman, based on the novel "Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem" by Peter Ackroyd. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Simon Dennis. Editor: Justin Krish.

With: Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke, Douglas Booth, Daniel Mays, Sam Reid, Maria Valverde, Henry Goodman, Paul Ritter, Morgan Watkins, Peter Sullivan, Eddie Marsan, Graham Hughes, Henry Goodman, Morgan Watkins.

More Film

  • 'The Dirt' Review: A Mötley Crüe

    Film Review: 'The Dirt'

    A long time ago, the words sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll carried a hint of danger. The lifestyle did, too, but I’m talking about the phrase. It used to sound cool (back around the time the word “cool” sounded cool). But sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll has long since passed into the realm [...]

  • James Newton Howard Danny Elfman

    New Trend in Concert Halls: Original Music by Movie Composers — No Film Required

    Movie and TV composers are in greater demand than ever for, surprisingly, new music for the concert hall. For decades, concert commissions for film composers were few and far between. The increasing popularity of John Williams’ film music, and his visibility as conductor of the Boston Pops in the 1980s and ’90s, led to his [...]

  • Idris Elba Netflix 'Turn Up Charlie'

    Idris Elba in Talks to Join Andy Serkis in 'Mouse Guard'

    Idris Elba is in negotiations to join Andy Serkis and Thomas Brodie-Sangster in Fox’s fantasy-action movie “Mouse Guard” with “Maze Runner’s” Wes Ball directing. Fox is planning a live-action movie through performance capture technology employed in the “Planet of the Apes” films, in which Serkis starred as the ape leader Caesar. David Peterson created, wrote, [...]

  • Zac Efron Amanda Seyfried

    Zac Efron, Amanda Seyfried Join Animated Scooby-Doo Film as Fred and Daphne

    Zac Efron has signed on to voice Fred Jones while Amanda Seyfried will voice Daphne Blake in Warner Bros.’ animated Scooby-Doo feature film “Scoob.” It was revealed earlier this month that Will Forte had been set to voice Norville “Shaggy” Rogers, while Gina Rodriguez would be voicing Velma Dinkley. The mystery-solving teens and their talking [...]

  • 'Staff Only' Review: Cultures And Values

    Film Review: 'Staff Only'

    Marta (Elena Andrada) is 17, from Barcelona and alternately bored and mortified to be on a Christmas vacation to Senegal with her estranged dad, Manel (Sergi López), and annoying little brother, Bruno (Ian Samsó). For her, the freedoms of imminent adulthood, such as the occasional poolside mojito, are tantalizing close but still technically forbidden, rather [...]

  • Rocketman

    Candid 'Rocketman' Dares to Show Elton John as 'Vulnerable,' 'Damaged,' 'Ugly'

    Elton John movie “Rocketman” dares to portray the singer’s personality early in his career to have been, at times, “ugly,” Taron Egerton – who plays the pop star – told an audience at London’s Abbey Road Studios Friday, following a screening of 15 minutes of footage from the film. It is a candid portrayal, showing [...]

  • Ben Affleck

    Ben Affleck's Addiction Drama Set for Awards-Season Release

    Warner Bros. has given Ben Affleck’s untitled addiction drama an awards-season-friendly release date of Oct. 18. The film, which has been known previously as “The Has-Been” and “Torrance,” is directed by Gavin O’Connor and stars Affleck as a former basketball player struggling with addiction, which has led to him losing his wife. As part of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content