Based on the 1994 novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd, The Limehouse Golem (2016) is a ghoulish portrayal of a Victorian London slum and the stone-faced detective trying to solve a series of grizzly and sensational crimes. It was directed by Juan Carlos Medina and adapted for the screen by Jane Goldman.
Medina is an inexperienced director, having only four films under his belt since 2001, and only two were full-length. Goldman wrote screenplays for The Woman in Black (2012), X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), and Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014). Her talented script shines through.
In the opening act, Lizzie Cree (Olivia Cooke) is arrested on suspicion of poisoning her husband, John (Sam Reid). Meanwhile, Inspector John Kildare (Bill Nighy) is tasked to solve the “Limehouse Golem” murders, which have become sensationalized in the press. He enlists the help of a Limehouse bobby George Flood (Daniel Mays).
They discover the Golem’s diary written on the pages of “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts” (1827) by Thomas De Quincey in a library and narrow the suspects to four men: philosopher Karl Marx (Henry Goodman), writer George Gissing (Morgan Watkins), comedian Dan Leno (Douglas Booth), and John Cree.
Inspector John Kildare is not an adept detective and even refers to himself as a scapegoat. Focusing almost entirely on handwriting analysis to whittle down a list of four suspects, he misses obvious clues like the fact that no new murders occur after the death of John Cree and the imprisonment of Elizabeth. The Limehouse Golem made it clear he was seeking fame above all else; he would not let someone else take the blame while he quietly slipped away, meaning the murderer had to either be John or Elizabeth.
**Major spoiler** In the end, it’s revealed that Elizabeth was the Golem all along. Left scarred and unable to enjoy sex by a cruel punishment inflicted by her mother, Elizabeth was raised on the streets until eventually carving out a home at the local theater. John Cree promises to give her the staring role in his new play if she marries him, but the play bombs and he loses interest. Desperate for the crowd’s adulation, Elizabeth turns into a monster–crafting her murderous persona around the mythological golem, a creature in Jewish folklore created from mud or clay.
This surprise ending doesn’t work well because it’s so out of left field. There are no indications Elizabeth is capable of the grisly crimes, and it’s a historic fact that most female serial killers (rare in and of itself) are poisoners and not brutal killers. Also, if Elizabeth was so desperate for fame and wanted recognition as the Limehouse Golem, why did she wait until just before she was executed to take credit? Why did she bother poisoning her husband and attempt to put the blame on him? That being said, Olivia Cooke, who also played Emma Decody on Bates Motel (2013-2017), was great in the role.
The Limehouse Golem is not historic fiction in a sense that the main plot and events really happened, but the setting, crimes, culture, and peripheral characters were largely historical, much like Gangs of New York (2002) colorfully brought to life mid-nineteenth century New York City. Limehouse is a district in east London on the north bank of the River Thames, and has long been an important shipping hub. In Victorian London, Limehouse was a bit Bohemian, with numerous bawdy music halls. It was frequented by well-known performers and intellectual figures, like three of the historic characters in the film: Karl Marx, George Gissing, and Dan Leno.
The Limehouse Golem is not without its inaccuracies. The movie is set in 1880 and contains references to concealing homosexuality, public hanging, the age of consent being 16, and a magic trick involving a woman being cut in half. According to Christopher Pittard, a Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Portsmouth, the age of consent in Great Britain was raised to 16 in 1885, homosexuality was not criminalized until 1885, public hangings were abolished in 1868, and no woman was cut in half in a magic trick until 1921. These are relatively minor inaccuracies, but I wonder why the film wasn’t just set five years later, since it contains other references to events in 1885 as well.
The film criticizes “white knights,” men who rush to the aid of vulnerable women, and even uses the anachronistic term. When George Gissing asks Inspector Kildare if he’s surprised he married a “fallen woman,” Kildare replies contemptuously: “Why would anyone be surprised? The world is full of men like you, Mr. Gissing. Men who feign generosity when all they really seek is congratulation. Men who play God by saving lives. Is it really so different, I wonder, than playing God by taking them?” It’s a great line, but doesn’t make much sense. I think any reasonable person would say saving lives is quite different from taking them, whatever the motive.
Overall, The Limehouse Golem has a decent cast, good direction, and great dialog. It rises above the typical police procedural, especially for history buffs, but isn’t quite as impactful as its creators intended.