Review: 'The Limehouse Golem', Bill Nighy Sleuths Around Victorian England

I’ve got to be honest. I’m not a huge fan of gothic horror. The whole spooky costume drama aesthetic just doesn’t do it for me. 2015’s Crimson Peak, for example, was visually fascinating, but story wise provided nary a thrill nor chill. That’s not say I entirely dismiss the genre. I’m a big fan of horror, and love when it’s effectively undercut with different styles and tones. But in most cases, this subgenre just falls flat for me. On very rare occasions, though, a brilliantly crafted gothic horror film will creep out of the historically accurate Victorian-era fog, and knock me out with its surprising storytelling. I’m happy to report that, much to my surprise, The Limehouse Golem is definitely one of those unexpected gems.

Set in late 1800’s England, Limehouse follows knock-off Sherlock Holmes Detective John Kildare (Bill Nighy), as he unravels the case of the eponymous Golem, a fictitious precursor to Jack the Ripper, while simultaneously attempting to free a young woman he fears has been wrongfully convicted of a murder linked to the case. Lizzie (Olivia Cooke), the alleged husband-murderer, spends the majority of the film in her cell, recounting her tragic life story to Kildare through a series of flashbacks. She explains her history of abuse and mistreatment that eventually brought her to the scandalous world of Vaudeville, and shortly after, a prison block.

Then the film gets interesting.

Lizzie’s story is a historical fiction, which excellently weaves her into the real life stories of famous 19th century British entertainers, including Dan Leno (Douglas Booth). Leno acts as both her mentor growing up in the theater, and as a fourth-wall breaking emcee for us watching it all play out. Booth knocked this out of the park, portraying Leno with the same type of dark charisma that Joel Grey used so ironically in Cabaret. His performance, coupled with Cooke’s fascinating and densely layered Lizzie and Nighy’s snarky detective, made for a very solidly acted film. As a result, Limehouse is the rare horror movie with a trio of distinct, interesting characters at its core. Could the killer be in the theater with them? Was it Leno himself? This movie has a really well-crafted mystery surrounding these characters. It legitimately got my gears turning, trying to figure out who was behind it all before the big reveals. It gets very interesting toward the final act.

That being said, the film is not without its faults. The first hour of The Limehouse Golem is at times, excruciatingly slow-burning. The early part of the movie is basically a Victorian Law & Order episode about Bill Nighy knocking on doors and asking questions. It was certainly critical to the story, as it helped set up those terrific historical fiction flashbacks, but it started to feel repetitive after the first couple rounds of interrogation scenes. The murders are all shown to us in graphic, gory detail, to very little affect. The history aspect even goes off the rails at times (there’s a scene where they all meet Karl Marx for some reason). Ultimately, though, the biggest problem I had was with its depiction of Lizzie’s tortured past. The film relies heavily on sexual violence to move the plot forward and motivate its female characters. This often played as cheap or exploitative, and is a deeply troubling trope that movies keep coming back to.

With all of that in mind, the film still managed to thoroughly impress and enthrall me. Without a doubt, the strength of The Limehouse Golem lies entirely in its final act. The last half hour of this movie caught me entirely off-guard, and finally delivered on the thrills it had been promising. Although there are some serious cracks in its foundation, The Limehouse Golem has such solid storytelling that you just can’t help but enjoy its penny dreadful spookiness.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5