Adapting a murder mystery by the British critic and historian Peter Ackroyd, director Juan Carlos Medina and screenwriter Jane Goldman borrow a distracting number of The Limehouse Golem’s stylistic cues from Albert and Allen Hughes’s similarly themed From Hell. Like the Hugheses’ Jack the Ripper, the Limehouse Golem is envisioned as a hulking figure in black who speaks in a demonic timbre that suggests a conjuring of all of Britain’s latent psychosexual sickness. The Limehouse Golem also has a penchant for splattery stabbings that carry an unmistakable whiff of rape, and the settings of his murders offer up color schemes that are straight out of a giallo.
Like From Hell and many other stories of serial killers, The Limehouse Golem is preoccupied with violence as either a response to oppression or an embodiment of the same—a theme that often unites the mystery and horror genres. Unlike Jack the Ripper, who killed prostitutes, the (fictional) Limehouse Golem is notable for the arbitrariness of his murders, which reflects a perverse kind of democracy that dwarfs Scotland Yard’s attempts to parse a motive. Prostitutes are gutted and hung as declarations of war, but so are garment sellers, actors, and Jewish intellectuals. Amusingly, Karl Marx (Henry Goodman), who studies at the British museum where the Limehouse Golem is known to go, is questioned about the killings, while an actor, Dan Leno (Douglas Booth), plays a potentially significant role in the crimes.
The derivative, impersonal, yet legitimate sensory pleasures of The Limehouse Golem are somewhat dwarfed by the plot, which involves elaborate flashbacks linking the Limehouse Golem to a successful comic actress, Elizabeth Cree (Olivia Cooke), who’s on trial for poisoning her husband, John (Sam Reid). To solve the killings, Inspector John Kildare (Bill Nighy) must unravel the story of Elizabeth’s life. Both sexual outcasts who’ve suffered abuse and discrimination, Kildare and Elizabeth bond over their mutual alienation from patriarchy, which connects them to a killer who yearns to highlight Britain’s insidious and hypocritical methods of re-exploiting its already exploitive culture of violence and sexual stigmatization through newspapers and theater, essentially selling the country’s cruelty back to itself.
This is a resonant theme for a thriller, but the filmmakers are ultimately after more routine genre thrills. Initially colorful, the script’s lurid and overripe dialogue eventually grinds the film to a halt, preaching of the hypocrisy of classist and sexist privilege in televisual exposition dumps that give the audience time to anticipate the twist ending long before it’s sprung. However, Nighy and Cooke’s performances hit delicate and complementary notes of loss and bitterness that inform The Limehouse Golem with a lingering aura of pain. The film is a contraption, then, that thrums with melodramatic intensity.