The dark streets of Victorian London are full of riches of an unconventional kind. In The Limehouse Golem, ambitious orphan Elizabeth Cree looks for redemption in the glowing orbs of the theatre, cross-dressing actor Dan Leno searches for adoration in the crowds that come to see him and a year later, Inspector Kildare searches for an answer to a gruesome spree of murders that spreads a web across the murky alleyways.
A period drama that delights in mystery and horror, The Limehouse Golem is a gripping adaptation of a 1994 novel by Peter Ackroyd. Olivia Cooke (Me, Earl and the Dying Girl) takes the intriguing central role of Elizabeth Cree, embodying all the performer’s different complexities in a way that never feels less than authentic. Fortunately for an actor, and in a similar manner to Jennifer Lawrence, Cooke is also somewhat ageless, able to look intensely young and yet convey years of weary experience at the same time.
Providing her main counterpart is Bill Nighy as Kildare, who took the role on from Alan Rickman when his health issues began to prevent him from working. While it’s sad to remember that we could’ve seen Rickman in this excellently written part, Nighy is wonderful at capturing the character’s sincere drive to help others whilst emotionally shutting out those who look too closely at his own story. He’s here for the case, and neither the people around him, or the inquisitive narrative of the film itself, should be looking further than that.
Despite having not read the book, the movie comes across as a far more creative adaptation than other directors and writers might have given it as a simple period drama. As it is, it seeks to thrill and incite fear with quirks in the narrative that could only have been achieved on film, suggesting writer Jane Goldman (The Woman in Black) and director Juan Carlos Medina have truly thought creatively in translating text to screen.
For example, as the Golem case moves through potential suspects, a different voice narrates each of the murderer’s unbearable crimes. It’s a purely cinematic effect that lends believability to every single would-be innocent face, and it’s a great example of an adaptation that enhances its source material by recognising its different strengths as another medium. Later on, a huge plot reveal is done so artfully that it’s capable of drawing simultaneous gasps from the audience.
From a thematic standpoint, and with Cree as the lead, it’s also an intelligently feminist tale, but one that recognises the complexities of that label and revels in how fallible an audience can be. Nothing about this film is cut and dry, but the lasting impressions that you leave the cinema with will doubtless act as something of a mirror. As a bonus point that is missing all too often in modern film, it also explores control and assault against women in a way that never feels exploitative. Why the reverse happens everywhere else is a (lengthy) discussion for another time.
The link between period dramas and novel adaptations is often a close one. Sometimes, directors and writers are too reverential of the source material, or else painting by numbers to get a paycheque. However, a great adaptation is one that recognises itself as a product of a different medium, and uses the quirks available from cinema to provide an experience that isn’t simply watching the Wikipedia summary of a novel. The Limehouse Golem is a great adaptation – creative, intelligent and genuinely horrifying at times, it makes the case for its own existence as a compelling film that needed to be made from the text. I’m glad it was.