There’s nothing quite like a good, tactile movie, the kind that’s so detailed and designed that you feel like you could reach through the screen and brush your hands against its set pieces. The same could be said of an old fashioned chiller, a macabre story set against the backdrop of high culture, a’la Crimson Peak. So you may walk into Juan Carlos Medina’s The Limehouse Golem with fair expectations that the film will satisfy your taste for both life’s finer and ghastlier things. Speaking in strictest terms, it does, but spoken more loosely, you’ll still be left wanting. The Limehouse Golem has costumes, and drama and an abundance of severed appendages, splattered gore and artfully dismembered bodies, and maybe that’s all any horror fan can ask for. Still: There’s nothing wrong with hoping for more.
Medina has adapted a 1994 murder mystery novel of the same name, written by Peter Ackroyd, in which a woman is put on trial for allegedly bumping off her hubby by poisoning his nightcap. As her legal woes increase, the search for a vicious serial killer, the ol’ Limehouse Golem—sort of a proto Jack the Ripper type—is conducted in the background. The movie follows much the same path as its source material, with Olivia Cooke in the role of the misjudged young lady, Elizabeth Cree, and Bill Nighy in the role of the unassuming, purposely misassigned lawman, Inspector John Kildare, who over the course of the film grows equally as determined to catch the Golem as he is to clear Elizabeth’s good name. (Tertiary to those pursuits is his concern for his own name, which is liable to end up dragged through the streets should he fail to catch the killer.)
That’s a classic set-up, a Victorian gothic whodunit with a touch of mystical intrigue courtesy of the Golem legend. Medina’s murderer takes inspiration from that piece of Jewish folklore after stalking and gutting a Jewish scholar, which happens to be the most harrowing element of the film, not because of execution or aesthetics, but because the innate anti-Semitism of the act, as well as the performed anti-Semitism of Medina’s characters, goes unanswered. A few years ago, this might have gone unnoticed. In 2017, it’s hard not to be shaken by the invocation of casual bigotry. Neither The Limehouse Golem nor Medina endorse discrimination, of course, but they don’t have much to say about it, either. (If you don’t have anything to say about anti-Semitism, don’t treat it as a key plot element in your film.)
Unfortunately, that’s the case for the film taken as a whole: There isn’t much resting beneath the hood, so to speak, just elements of genre and craftsmanship buttressed by good work from the film’s leads. Nighy snuffs out his usual spark of dry and wily wit, replacing it with a heaping dose of self-doubt and resignation. His Kildare is a wary man, glum and uncertain of himself working in a field with which he’s unfamiliar. Murder isn’t his usual gig. Nighy interprets this by ditching all snark and superiority, which is both a king bummer and a welcome enough change from his usual act. (It’s rare to see him cast in anything, of late, that does not require him to be abrasively charming.)
Cooke, by comparison, is steely, proud, defiant and oh-so-well-suited to the film’s period setting that her appearance here further compounds the injustice of her part in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Elizabeth is a survivor of childhood abuses with ambitions for the stage, and her ambitions become an essential component of The Limehouse Golem’s central puzzles, touring the audience through the London music hall where she cuts her teeth in the biz, training under the real-life music hall comedian Dan Leno (Douglas Booth). Cooke is such a pronounced delight that one can’t help but wish that Medina had changed the story around enough to make her the hero rather than a damsel in distress. Alas.
They’re good together, though, and good enough to offset The Limehouse Golem’s list of shortcomings (which is itself short, but substantial enough to merit mention). For one thing, the film leans far too heavily on flashback as an integral part of its storytelling. There’s so much of it, in fact, that Cooke and Nighy are given less to do as a pair than they deserve: Each flashback lets Cooke shine alongside her supporting male cast members without Nighy’s assistance, but end up creating distance between the stars of the piece. We want Nighy and Cooke to share more of the screen, not less, even if we’re happy to see Cooke enjoy plenty of screentime herself. They’re fun to watch together, and the greater the gap separating them, the harder it is to buy into Kildare’s stubborn insistence on exonerating her.
The Limehouse Golem’s great fault is its emptiness. Medina constructs deliciously bloody tableaus in the vein of Hannibal, layers his mise en scene with textures ranging from the clothes its characters wear to the viscera that so often decorates the frame, but, much like his conjured anti-Semitism, he doesn’t offer comment on them, or give his viewers reason to comment on them, either. The details of style are there, and “there” is all they are. His enthusiastic embrace of genre is appreciated, and in tandem with Nighy and Cooke, his obvious love for the mode of horror he’s working in makes The Limehouse Golem a gratifying experience. Because the film is so fixated on the artist’s fear of being forgotten, it’s a letdown that it isn’t more memorable itself.
Director: Juan Carlos Medina
Writer: Jane Goldman, Peter Ackroyd (novel)
Starring: Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke, Douglas Booth, Daniel Mays, Adam Brown, Sam Reid, Maria Valverde
Release Date: September 8, 2017
Boston-based pop culture critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist, WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Polygon, Thrillist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.