A serial killer mystery set in the bawdy music hall world of 1880s London? With the suspects including assorted performers, a monster of Jewish folklore, a murder victim and old Karl Marx himself? And the Scotland Yard sleuth working the case from “in the closet?”
“The Limehouse Golem,” based on Peter Ackroyd’s novel, has the makings of a corker of a thriller. A solid British B-list cast animate it, and they bring this world to life and find intrigue (under-developed) a few thrills (not enough) and plenty of pathos and more or less pull it off.
The tale is framed within a stage presentation, “a shocker,” as the genre was labeled back in the day. A cross-dressing star (Douglas Booth of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”) purrs, “Let us begin, friends, at the end.”
That end is a poisoning. A journalist (Sam Reid) has died, after seemingly burning all his papers and leaving his grieving widow (Olivia Cooke of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” and “Ouija”) with nothing.
Save for a mouthy maid (Maria Valverde) who fingers her mistress to the cop (Daniel Mays of “Vera Drake”) sent to investigate.
But the Lizzie Cree case isn’t all Officer Flood has on his plate. A string of mutilated murder victims have been found in the same area as a notorious slaughter from 70 years before. The press has labeled the crimes monstrous, and given the killer a monster’s guise — “The Limehouse Golem.” Flood is brought on to assist Detective Inspector Kildare, played by the tall and soft-spoken Bill Nighy.
Kildare is to be “the scapegoat” when that case isn’t solved. He’s been passed over for promotion for decades because “he’s not the marrying kind.” Yes, a gay cop is to take the fall when the public’s appetite for blood isn’t sated with a suspect.
But Kildare is a smart, well-dressed (a Nighy trademark) cookie — “To the library!”
And it is there that the two cases become truly intertwined — a book on Jewish mythology with a gruesome hand-written “journal” by the killer scrawled in the margins, a reading room where the late Mr. Cree hung out with the likes of Karl Marx, clues that lead to victim profiles and store ledgers and library sign-in sheets that produce a list of suspects.
“It’s not my place to have an opinion,” Kildare declares. “I just follow the threads.”
Jame Goldman’s script throws three threads of story at us. In court, and in questioning, we learn of the horrific life of poor Lizzie Cree, a girl “from the docks” who found her way into music halls, where she caught the eye of her future husband, a man in search of a “damsel in distress.”
There’s the investigation-proper, where Kildare teases out flashbacks of Lizzie’s past, and takes pity on her, all the while imagining the crimes as they might have been committed, narrated in an indistinct/disguised voice by each would-be murderer.
And there’s the music hall, where Dan Leno (Booth) is the toast of the town, a cross-dressing vamp so successful he runs his own theater, and was once in a position to give poor Lizzie an escape from her plight and put her on the stage.
The leads are all compelling, with Cooke giving Lizzie pathos with a touch of furious resignation. Life’s been awful, men have always mistreated her and she’s just had to put up with it. Nighy makes Kildare’s sympathy — that of a gay man misused and underestimated — perfectly plausible common ground with Lizzie.
American-born director Juan Carlos Medina (“Painless”) loses himself, as do we all, in this milieu, The Ripper’s London, with seedy backstreets, rampant crime and a lowbrow theater scene that he had the most fun populating.
A Who’s Who of British character players show up. Just when you think, “Where’s Eddie Marsan, the Prince of Brit Character Players,” there he is — a jovial music hall proprietor with plenty of menace in his manner. David Bamber of the classic TV “Pride and Prejudice,” is flashy as the sneering prosecutor condemning Lizzie’s upbringing, class and associations in making the state’s case against her.
The solution to the mystery feels like a cheat, and that’s the only sequence that takes on any urgency. “Limehouse” is more a fascinating world to be immersed in than a dazzling telling of a morbid tale.
But the players bring that world to life, and if we care enough to know the solution to the mystery and who is guilty, who is innocent and who will come out of this the hero, it’s thanks to them.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, sex crimes
Cast: Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke, Douglas Booth, Daniel Mays, Eddie Marsan, Sam Reid
Credits: Directed by Juan Carlos Medina, script by Jane Goldman, based on the Peter Ackroyd novel. An RLJ Entertainment release.
Running time: 1:48