The Limehouse Golem film review: a sharp and bloody horror

Bill Nighy and Olivia Cooke shine in the intelligent and chilling horror The Limehouse Golem

An uncatchable killer is stalking the streets of Victorian London, but this isn’t the Ripper. This is The Limehouse Golem, a murderer who doesn’t leave a trace and doesn’t seem to follow any discernible pattern. Adapted from Peter Ackroyd’s acclaimed novel Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem, this intelligent chiller plunges us into a mystery full of bitterness, resentment, abuse and blood.

Jane Goldman does stellar work constructing a script that offers greater pleasures than simply solving the puzzle. Perception is crucial, assumptions are foolish, and everyone is more than they appear to be.

Our hero is Inspector John Kildare of Scotland Yard, played with a terse, wounded dignity by Bill Nighy. A gifted policeman who has been held back due to rumours about his sexuality, Kildare is given the high-profile case on the assumption that he’ll fail. He picks the earnest Flood (a warm turn from Daniel Mays) as his dogsbody and discovers diary entries written by the killer in the pages of a book in the British Library, narrowing his hunt to four possible suspects.

However, one of these men has just been poisoned, and his widow, former music hall star Elizabeth Cree (Olivia Cooke), is standing trial for his murder. Somehow, her past on the stage with one of the other suspects, the famous Dan Leno (Douglas Booth) is the key to solving the mystery. But will Kildare get to the bottom of it before the Golem kills again, and before the jury reach their verdict on Elizabeth?

The Limehouse Golem gets moving quickly, bringing us into the world of music halls with the raucous crowds, bawdy performances and back-stage politics. The transitions between Kildare’s investigations and Elizabeth’s history are elegantly handled, and the combination of the gruesome re-enactments of the murders and the cutthroat world of performance makes for gripping viewing. Medina (who directed the excellent Spanish horror Painless) clearly has a lot of fun with the former, as the various suspects deliver monologues direct to camera as they go about their brutal murders, bringing an unexpected dose of bloody horror to the film.

However, while the film is frequently gruesome, where it really impresses is in showing us an area of Victorian London that we don’t often see, and in offering some wickedly sharp commentary alongside its genre thrills. It’s tough to go into in too much detail without ruining anything, but it’s certainly not a film that’s overly interested in straight male leads. Indeed, heterosexual desire is frequently violent, threatening or, at its very best, part of an unwanted White Knight complex. The latter is deconstructed with particular pleasure, as Elizabeth’s desire to succeed on the stage clashes with the enamoured John Cree’s (Sam Reid) determination to “rescue” her from what she’s worked so hard for.

Speaking of Elizabeth Cree, this film provides Olivia Cooke (Bates Motel, Me And Earl And The Dying Girl, The Quiet Ones) with the best showcase for her talents yet, and she makes the most of her complex role. As good as Nighy is, this is absolutely her film and she is brilliant. It’s also worth noting the sterling work from Douglas Booth as the slippery entertainer Dan Leno. Kindly off-stage with a hint of sharpness, Leno is magnetic in the limelight, and he’s one of the film’s most compelling characters.

Whether you guess the identity of the Golem or not, this is a richly rewarding riff on penny dreadful horrors with a real wit and bite to it, and it’s a wonderfully chilling treat.