There is no better city in which to have a gritty murder mystery than London, home of such infamous historic villains as Jack the Ripper and the Lambeth Poisoner. So often in fiction have hardened upholders of justice prowled its shady, seedy streets as blood runs in the gutters and malevolent, unscrupulous individuals lurk in the darkness. It is to this vision of London that The Limehouse Golem, adapted from Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, takes us, in a tale that is not terribly stand-out but still firmly made.
Inspector John Kildare of Scotland Yard is abruptly assigned to the case of the titular Limehouse Golem, a serial killer prowling London on a killing spree. Simultaneously, a young woman by the name of Elizabeth Cree stands accused of murdering her husband. Their paths, and the paths of the two separate cases, interwine deeply as Kildare finds himself fighting not only to stop a scourge from plaguing London, but also to save the life of a woman he firmly believes to be innocent despite the belief of the courts - and despite Elizabeth's own
The most defining element of any horror-thriller or murder-mystery is the plot that is offered up. Here, it is serviceable, but if you are coming into this film to bear witness to a unique and arresting series of events, the core of the story, though done in the tradition of classic murder-mystery plots, is ultimately somewhat plain. It features rampant suspicion, red herrings, and seedy individuals in abundance - but despite it not lacking in potency, it is probably the weakest aspect of this production. Kildare, accompanied by Daniel Mays' George Flood, locates and interrogates a number of colourful personalities all rooted in history - from Dan Leno to George Lessing to, bizarrely enough, Karl Marx - each a stepping stone towards uncovering the culprit's identity. It's standard fare, a relatively mundane plot that doesn't leave much to discuss or ponder, but the film's strengths lie elsewhere and help to elevate it above the level of an average detective flick.
The film's competencies lie chiefly in two fields. Cinematography is one of them - the film perfectly captures the atmosphere of 1880s London, equally a bustling metropolis and a grimy, dark and desolate place in its shadowy underbelly. Many of the scenes in London are shot at night, enhancing the palpable sense of intrigue and dread that permeates the film's quieter moments. Cinematographer Simon Dennis spares no expense in enhancing the mood whenever an opportunity arises, creating striking visuals by exploiting the darkness, and even in areas that are considerably better-lit the sense of verisimilitude remains unchanged. The lively halls of Dan Leno's theatre and the quiet majesty of the interior of the British Museum reading rooms are the two most striking locations viewed in light, and perform well in immersing the audience in the time period alongside the tenebrous, cobbled streets of inner London.
Above even that, though, are the performances of and interactions between the central cast. Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke and Douglas Booth play their roles with unwavering, steadfast excellence. Nighy sells his role as Kildare completely, convincingly playing a veteran detective with an unerring belief in innocence and a need to dispense justice. His expression rarely shifts from a determined scowl of sorts, but his words and subtle reactions to revelations say all they need to say, and while as a character Kildare is not particularly memorable, the quiet resolve that Bill bestows upon him makes him compelling to watch. Olivia Cooke's Elizabeth 'Lizzy' Cree is a similar standout, and dances across the emotional spectrum as she finds herself placed in a variety of positions, from troubled orphan to rising star to a woman who is adamant in letting the jury decide her fate. She shines the most in her numerous conversations with Kildare curing her imprisonment, or in the sequences detailing her time as a performer for Dan Leno's troupe of artists. The central point of much of the film's intrigue and tragedy, and even having a brief time as a comedian in a few of her stage performances, Cooke plays the role with aplomb, succeeding in creating a character that is intriguing, multifaceted and mysterious.
Rounding out the central cast is Douglas Booth as Dan Leno, flamboyant and bombastic on stage and sharing small yet notable moments with Elizabeth, serving as her mentor, guardian and confidant. Leno provides the majority of the few moments of humour in the film barring a handful of witty retorts from Kildare, and although his style of comedy may come across as dated and peculiar, his eccentricities are a delight to watch. Daniel Mays is tragically underused in his role, his one truly noteworthy moment being a heated discussion with Kildare early on in the film, but he performs well enough, and the superb degree of effort put into the project by the other cast members makes his lack of presence forgiveable. Characters make a thriller almost as much as the plot does, and The Limehouse Golem indubitably excels in this regard.
The end result is a curious case, much like a serviceable recipe missing a crucial ingredient which could have otherwise secured its excellence. Stirring visuals and a strong cast are things that the film can certainly lay claim to, but with a more engaging central narrative, this adaptation could have easily become one of the greats. Regrettably, with a rather basic progression and twists that, in hindsight, come across as somewhat telegraphed, it is merely well-made, but solidly-constructed book adaptations - and decent horror/thriller films - are a rare find in this day and age. It may quickly end up fading into memory amid the ceaseless tide of new releases, but should you lay your eyes upon it, you will not be disappointed.