A Movie That Deserves a Second Chance

in 41st Toronto International Film Festival

by Louis-Paul Rioux

This year at TIFF, The Limehouse Golem was a movie that didn’t receive the critical reception it deserved. It was the pet project of producer Stephen Woolley (Made in Dagenham, Carol), a film that was supposed to be directed by his longtime collaborator Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, The End of the Affair), with Alan Rickman in the leading role. But the actor’s illness forced him to drop out, and then Jordan was replaced by Juan Carlos Medina, a Miami-born director who has made only one other feature, the horror-thriller Painless. That film screened in the Toronto festival in 2012.

Right from the beginning, The Limehouse Golem had two strikes against it. And critics went with the flow, responding unfavourably to this “troubled” film. But this is unfair, because the final result is more than satisfying. Adapted from Peter Ackroyd’s novel “Don Leno and the Limehouse Golem”, the story takes place in 1880 London. Inspector Kildare is charged with finding and arresting a dangerous serial killer, someone who is apparently inspired by the Golem of the Jewish mythology. A clue leads him to the essay of Thomas De Quincey, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts”, in which the killer wrote the diary of the crimes. Four persons recently consulted this book at the British Library’s reading room. The last one was John Cree, theater critic turned playwright. But that man is dead, and his wife, music hall star Lizzie Cree, has been arrested and accused of poisoning him. Visiting the widow in prison, Kildare convinces himself that she is innocent. He believes that if she did kill her abusive husband, it was because she knew he was the Limehouse Golem. When Lizzie is condemned by the jury, the inspector tries hard to prove John Cree’s guilt before Lizzie hangs.

Though a bit overstuffed, the screenplay by Jane Goodman (Kick-Ass, Kingsman – Secret Service) is brilliant. Abandoning the diary structure of the novel, Goodman created the character of the inspector, which allows her to switch points of view as well as generate more suspense. For instance, when Kildare investigates the four readers of the book (including a certain Karl Marx…), the viewer sees each of these suspects committing the crimes onscreen as imagined by the policeman, in gory detail.

Likewise, numerous flashbacks illustrate the sad childhood of Lizzie and her artistic debuts with Don Leno, a London impresario and comedian, famous for his impersonations of women on stage. Leno who really existed, is played by Douglas Booth (The Riot Club) with an androgynous quality and a great deal of charisma. We see Lizzie and Leno in sequences that wonderfully illustrate the complex relations between theater and reality.

With a relatively small budget, Medina vividly recreated the Victorian era, with a highly polished art direction that was attentive to significant details. The rhythm of this movie never flags, and the music of Johan Soderqvist is expressive without being obtrusive. Overall, Medina did marvelous work as director.

Replacing the late Alan Rickman, Bill Nighy (Pride!) is excels, in an uncharacteristically sober and moving performance. But Olivia Cooke (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) steals the show. Touchingly fragile in the prison scenes, she impresses in the flashbacks, where her singing talents and comic timing are fully exploited.

United Kingdom. 2016. Director: Juan Carlos Medina. Screenwriter: Jane Goldman, based on a novel by Peter Ackroyd. Director of photography: Simon Dennis. Editor: Justin Krish. Music: Johan Soderqvist. Cast: Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke, Douglas Booth, Daniel Mays, Maria Valverde. 106 min.

Edited by Michael Sicinski