The Limehouse Golem is a fascinating film for several reasons. It seems to have divided audiences and overall its box office performance has been ‘soft’ for Lionsgate in the UK (albeit on one of the worst weekends of the year for the cinema b.o.). It’ll be interesting to see what happened in Week 2.
My personal interest in the film is mainly because its two key locations of an 1880s East End street and the interior of a music hall were recreated in the atmospheric setting of Dalton Mills in Keighley. This complex of three textile mills built in the 1860s is a listed building with several unique features which have been cleverly utilised. The complex has been used for a range of film and TV locations including North and South (2004), the TV adaptation of Mrs Gaskell’s novel and it lies adjacent to Keighley Station and the Keighley & Worth Valley heritage railway. Using other key locations in the North of England and then studio work in London, The Limehouse Golem has a very strong visual aesthetic with minimal visible CGI. This and the performances of an impressive cast are its strengths.
The scriptwriter Jane Goldman is known for her collaborations with Matthew Vaughn and Mark Millar but perhaps the important link here is her 2012 adaptation of the Woman in Black by Susan Hill. The Limehouse Golem has been adapted from a 1994 novel with the title Dan Leno and The Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd. Ackroyd specialises in biography and novels about London and its history. The Limehouse Golem is about the trial of Elizabeth Cree, charged for the murder of her husband, a would-be playwright. The narrative involves going back over Mrs Cree’s emergence as a star of Dan Leno’s music hall. Leno is one of three historical figures (Karl Marx and the novelist George Gissing are the others) who appear to have been in the British Museum Library reading room at the same time as John Cree and whose testimony must be explored. I haven’t read the novel, but in the film, Inspector Kildare (Bill Nighy) is the investigator of this mystery which is presented through a series of flashbacks, some with ‘unreliable narration’. I suspect that, as in the case of The Woman in Black, there is possibly a degree of snobbery in some of the reactions to Goldman’s adaptation of a genre novel by an acclaimed ‘literary’ writer into a popular film. The other negative reactions may come from genre fans of horror or mystery films. The latter, in particular, can sometimes dismiss a narrative if they deem it too easy to ‘solve’ as a puzzle. It’s really a question of how you approach a narrative in order to be entertained. It may well be the case that The Limehouse Golem is an easy ‘puzzle’ to solve, but I would argue its pleasures are found in how the events are presented on screen.
The setting of the film in the Gothic world of late 19th century London is shared by a range of current film and TV offerings, including the TV series Ripper Street. What makes the setting particularly interesting for audiences in 2017 is the ability of familiar genre set-ups to absorb and use contemporary concerns in its storylines (whether this is intentional or not and this film first appeared in 2016). In this case there is an emphasis on gender identities and immigration. One character is an ‘exotic’ acrobat played by the Spanish actor María Valverde and the the Jewishness of the East End is explored in some detail, including in the reference to the ‘Golem’, the monster formed from clay that can be either protective or malign in its actions in relation to Jewish communities. Interestingly, it is his Jewishness that singles out Karl Marx rather than his work on Das Kapital. Cross-dressing is a feature of Dan Leno’s music hall performances, into which Lizzie Cree is inducted. These are traditional performances in an English context but the introduction of a ‘repressed’ gay sensibility by two of the characters is something that appears to have gone down badly with some audiences. I think that Peter Ackroyd is a gay writer so this may be in the original novel. The narrative could have introduced Oscar Wilde and his circle since he was active in London from the early 1880s. But then there is no claim to historical accuracy in the film and ‘real’ characters like Dan Leno are presented anachronistically several years out of place.
The clearest contemporary reference is to celebrity gossip and tabloid sensationalism so that in one scene an unworldly Inspector Kildare arrives at a crime scene overrun by goulish spectators and Daniel Mays as a uniformed constable explains that the blood attracts crowds because it is cheaper than paying to watch (or read) a ‘shocker’. The narrative is indeed about celebrity, ‘performance’ and the 1880s equivalent of reality TV. I didn’t enjoy the gore on display in the murders but this may please others. The discovery in the film is Olivia Cooke, a young actor (23) from Oldham playing Lizzie Cree most convincingly. Douglas Booth as Dan Leno, Henry Goodman as Marx and Eddie Marsan as the music hall manager lead the fine team of players and credit must also go to director Juan Carlos Medina, cinematographer Simon Denis (who also shot episodes of Ripper Street and Peaky Blinders) and the whole production design crew. I did note the comment that though the music hall scenes include interesting musical sequences, we never see any musicians – how odd. The trailer below gives an impression of the use of locations and sets and I’ve chosen the stills to show this as well.