“Let us begin, my friends, at the end.”
So begins “The Limehouse Golem,” a Gothic mystery which is set, we’re informed, in the pre-Jack the Ripper era, sometime in the late 1800’s. It’s full of gentlemen in top hats, ladies in corsets, grimy streets, fine abodes and characters who speak in aphorisms (“He who observes spills no less blood than he who inflicts the blow.” Lactantius.) My first impression was regret that Mother’s Day had passed because it was the type of period film my mom would love, but as the film headed into the second half, I changed my mind. My mom likes British period films but not ones that descend into the realm of the overly absurd and campy. As “The Limehouse Golem,” is Gothic storytelling on steroids, I was probably wise to go with a gift card this year.
The “Golem” of the title is a murderer who’s terrorizing London, killing victims who do not appear to share any defining similar characteristics, but who is believed to be somehow linked to a music hall actress (Olivia Cooke), after her husband (Sam Reid) is killed, too. That’s the cue for Bill Nighy, who never fails to deliver regardless of period, to step in as an Inspector. We learn right away that he’s “not the marrying kind,” though why this detail is included given the age gap between him and Cooke, is never explained. His partner is the cherubic-faced Daniel Mays who doesn’t have much to do but is on Bill’s side, something Bill fears his superior isn’t and that he is being set up to fail. Anyway, Bill gets right to work which consists mostly of interviewing Olivia, who is on trial for possibly poisoning her husband, about her life. After a grim, poverty-ridden childhood, Olivia goes to live and work at a music hall after her mother passes. This is where she’s taken under the wing of the principal actor (the perpetually pale Douglas Boothe), who becomes her mentor (but not lover). Surprisingly, Olivia becomes a success, but when she meets Sam, he forces her to give up her acting career (you can see where this is heading).
Meanwhile, Bill runs around interviewing suspects, including – I swear – Karl Marx, beard and all (Henry Goodman). Henry also speaks in aphorisms, but in this case, it’s understandable, even if he seems to be shoehorned into the movie (maybe it’s clearer in the novel by Peter Ackroyd on which this is based). None of these suspects are anywhere half as intriguing as Olivia, but a job must be done. It becomes a race against time for Bill to prove her innocence before she ascends the gallows. And then there’s a twist! And then the movie refuses to end – the best you can say about this is that at least it subverts being too predictable. Viewers who enjoy British period mysteries may enjoy curling up on a dark and stormy night to watch “The Limehouse Golem,” but they should be prepared to be left scratching their heads when the credits roll.