Saturday 2 September 2017

"The Limehouse Golem" (Catholic Herald 01/09/17)

One upside of the recent Downtonisation of British cinema and TV – lacing-up history in pretty bows for easy export – has been the rediscovery of a counter-strain of period horror. 2011’s The Awakening, 2012’s The Woman in Black, and small-screen scream Penny Dreadful all cut a swathe through Empire’s underbelly, exposing the rot that lurked behind the hope and glory. Now there’s The Limehouse Golem (***, 15, 109 mins), a curious melange born of wildly diverse influences: turning Peter Ackroyd’s novel over to cackling Kick-Ass scribe Jane Goldman, Juan Carlos Medina’s film attempts an altogether grisly cross-section of late 19th century London. You might want to brace (or at least cross) yourself.

The year is 1880, and we find the eponymous East End murderer several kills into a reign of terror stirring press and public alike into a frenzy. Bill Nighy’s marginalised Scotland Yarder Kildare is on the case, yet he’s soon distracted by Lizzie Cree (Olivia Cooke), a doll-like music hall performer accused of poisoning her playwright husband. Ackroyd’s thesis is that, for pre-Netflix Britain, murder provided its own form of entertainment, bestowing celebrity upon an infamous few. Much as there was speculation Jack the Ripper had to have been well-connected, so too the Golem’s slayings throw up illustrious suspects: Karl Marx (Henry Goodman), George Gissing (Morgan Watkins) and Dan Leno (Douglas Booth).

Medina, meanwhile, gets starry-eyed over his glitziest set – understandably so, as it plays host to the only gaiety and warmth coming off the screen. Music hall (proto-cinema as it was) is here positioned as an affordable escape from a grim world indeed: dark, dank and crowded, shrouded in the noxious fumes of industry and intolerance, the film’s London forms a theatre of cruelty in which a Lizzie Cree’s fate is to be sold as trade or married off to brutes. (Death almost offers a relief.) This distinguishes The Limehouse Golem from the cosy Sunday-night telly that’s started sneaking into multiplexes: Medina’s bloody backstreet meanderings owe more to Hannibal Lecter than nice Hugh Bonneville.

It’s just a pity everybody’s locked into a plot that’s never quite as richly detailed as Ackroyd’s historical backdrop. Nighy aces a poignant coming-out scene with a young constable (Daniel Mays), only for Goldman to retreat from Kildare’s inner life. The whole winds up seeming both clever and strained: a race-to-the-gallows setpiece parallels an earlier staged execution but feels hackneyed, and it cues revelations that may provoke groans from the cheap seats. For all its literary trappings, the film’s finally a penny dreadful itself, one that hooks and diverts yet brooks no lasting scrutiny; still, given British cinema’s current, fustily perfumed state, a pungent whiff of sulphur like this might just count as a breath of fresh air.

The Limehouse Golem is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

No comments:

Post a Comment