Revenge and ambition are particularly bloody in Juan Carlos Medina’s 1880 Victorian London and this macabre murder mystery moves at a dizzying and breathless pace. The film, scripted by Jane Goldman, is based on Peter Ackroyd’s novel, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem and focuses on the hunt for “the name on every Londoner’s lips” — a serial killer known as the Limehouse Golem. The east London attacks have been so monstrous, it is believed that they could only be the work of a Golem, the mythical creature from Jewish folklore.
Scotland Yard’s Inspector John Kildare, (Bill Nighy), a detective whose career is going nowhere, is given the unenviable task of solving the case.
He finds himself drawn to music-hall star, Elizabeth “Little Lizzie” Cree (Olivia Cooke) — in the dock accused of poisoning her journalist/playwright husband — as he suspects that the two crime investigations are linked. Nighy, (Alan Rickman was originally cast in the role), blends intellect with authority in his quest to save Elizabeth from the gallows and uncover the truth behind the brutal murders.
The tale is told in flashback, framed by a show that tells the story of Elizabeth’s rise to fame, from poverty and maternal abuse to music-hall darling. But the plot also flits back and forth to Kildare’s present-day questioning of his suspects, which is where the film merges fact and fiction, featuring real-life historical characters such as Karl Marx —hilariously portrayed by Henry Goodman — novelist, George Gissing and Dan Leno (Douglas Booth), the famous music-hall, cross-dressing, singer and comedian. Kildare’s imaginings of his suspects’ or the Golem’s truly gruesome acts adds another layer of flashback but also serves to show the random nature of the victims, who include an elderly talmudic scholar and a prostitute as well as an entire family.
The claustrophobic, dark, squalid streets of seedy, crime-ridden London contrast with the spectacular, bright lights and warmth of the theatre. But, even here, in what Leno refers to as family, tragedy strikes and there are rivalries: a jealous member of the company cruelly sets up Elizabeth when she plays to an audience of religious Jews.
As the largely satisfying, packed plot races along with its twists and turns, there is some clunky signposting. But with strong, compelling performances throughout, especially from Cooke, it is difficult not to “delight in this piece of theatre.”