J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

The Limehouse Golem: The Trial of Elizabeth Cree

In late Victorian London, the rabble of the Limehouse district had only two sources of entertainment. Attending music hall performances and devouring the lurid newspaper coverage of serial killings. These were jolly days for everyone who woke up to find themselves still alive. After reading accounts of the so-called Golem’s latest indiscriminate savagery, they trundled off to see Dan Leno’s nightly revue. The parallels between murder and performance are not lost on the scapegoat Scotland Yard inspector assigned to the case in Juan Carlos Medina’s The Limehouse Golem (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Rumors have long sabotaged Inspector John Kildare’s career and now he is being set-up to fail. However, if he solves the case, it will mean promotion and vindication. He might just be the right man for the job as well. After all, Sherlock Holmes was also a confirmed bachelor. As soon as working class Constable George Flood agrees to serve as his sergeant, they start visiting the disturbing crime scenes. However, the case might be over before it even starts.

By following-up leads, Kildare concludes the Limehouse Golem is most likely one of three regular patrons of the British Museum’s Reading Room: Karl Marx, George Gissing, or John Cree. Rather suspiciously, the Golem has not claimed a victim since popular stage comedienne Lizzie Cree was arrested for poisoning her husband. Believing she administered some parlor-room justice, Kildare promises to help her if she will confess and implicate the late John Cree. However, there is rather more to her lurid past than that, as we learn from a series of death-row flashbacks.

Watching Jane Goldman’s largely faithful adaptation of Peter Ackroyd’s 1994 novel makes it clear his Victorian mystery was surprisingly ahead of its time. Indeed, it has elements of some of the bestselling thrillers from the last four or five years, but it would be spoilery to explain how.

Perhaps more importantly, it has Bill Nighy acting wry and world-weary as Inspector Kildare. This is a case where Nighy’s established persona is so perfectly suited to the character, he only has to show up. Daniel Mays’ Flood nicely serves as a street-smart foil to the more cerebral Kildare. Eddie Marsan adds plenty of era-appropriate color as “Uncle,” the slightly dodgy impresario. However, the real standout is Douglas Booth as the flamboyant but iron-willed Dan Leno (a genuine historical figure, presumably no relation to Jay and far less annoying). Unfortunately, that means Olivia Cooke never really clicks as Lizzie Cree, falling short of the forceful presence and femme fatale sultriness the role really needed.

Still, Limehouse has plenty of sinister Victorian atmosphere and historical intrigue. Goldman deserves credit for not telegraphing the eleventh-hour surprise to viewers who haven’t read Ackroyd’s novel. Plus, it is always great fun to watch Nighy do his vinegary thing. Highly recommended for fans of British mysteries, The Limehouse Golem opens this Friday (9/8) in New York, at the Village East.

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