Look, going in I had no idea how gay The Limehouse Golem was going to be. I always love it when that happens. When some queer allusions started being thrown about they felt outta place, but then the screenplay slowly unfolded its hands and revealed that nope, he’s gay and she’s gay and they might call themselves libertines because it sounds all posh and Victorian but we all know what that really means. By about the halfway point the film has become a band of radical queers fighting the real horror and injustice on the screen: compulsory heterosexuality.
That is, until the final reveal of the overtelegraphed plot just muddies the waters and disrupts anything deliberately cool the film has to say. To make its early points on queerness it points the finger hard at straight society; more specifically the worst possible example of toxic masculinity, privilege and all. Bill Nighy’s investigator has a number of suspects to follow, including for a laughable segment (because it’s alt-history I guess) Karl Marx. There’s nothing funnier than a murder flashback starring everyone’s favourite communist hero; to the script’s credit it just lets him say, what you fucking doing, this is fucking silly, of course I didn’t murder anyone I’m Karl fucking Marx.
Anyway, Nighy and his bobby sidekick (played by British TV actor Dan Mays, who gives a whole bunch to this movie) are tracking these four suspects. It all feels a perfunctory task though because early on the film itself decides who we are to suspect, then constructs itself in a way that any other conclusion is possible.
The film begins with an unrelated death, a suspected poisoning, his wife is quickly accused of the deed but what possible motive could she have? When his name comes up in the course of the detective’s serial killer investigations and we start getting flashbacks to the ways he abused and manipulated his wife (a semi-closeted queer woman) it’s pretty clear which way the blame is gonna fall.
Until the final twist where it is in fact revealed that it was Karl Marx all along. I mean, not really, that would have been stupid but at least it would have been unexpected. It was about a third of the way through the running time I started mentally preparing myself for the twist that was obviously happening.
I get that in constructing these things you gotta balance the weight of convenience, measure the ways that characters interact so that the film’s dialogue with the audience is constantly skirting the edge of honesty. Thing is, you have to do it so good that nobody notices until it is too late. The specks and hints we be getting here fall down with all the grace of a ton of bricks.
I can’t put all that on the actors because they truly, largely doing their best. Really the major fault is that for all these crimes scenes which look like a low budget period version of Fincher’s Se7en (like the whole thing a little suspect, they do those library scenes and everything) they have one piece of evidence, a handwriting sample, and the entirety of their investigation is in procuring samples from the suspects.
That’s literally all they do down this joint. It’s no surprise that literally about or over half the running time is spent in these flashbacks which seem to have the minimum possible correlation to the actual murders. It’s like we smooshed two films together here, a Dickens orphan story about the London burlesque, and an alt-history Jack the Ripper knockoff. Both can be fair compelling at times on their own but they only serve to detract from one another. My take was that the queer theatrics of the flashbacks were far, far more compelling than the foregone conclusion of the mystery plot, I’m sure others will feel otherwise, but when you got two parallel narratives running it takes real work to not make either feel like an imposition.
This comes without mentioning that from the very off it’s assumed the killer is a dead man. Where’s the tension supposed to be? There ain’t gonna be no stunning reversal, there ain’t gonna be no more crimes to stop because these fools are literally chasing a ghost. The history of the wife of the dead man is only going to end one way, his death. The only thread it got going for it is in its queer empowerment fantasy, a Victoriana where two men can flirt over drinks while watching a drag show, and by then the ending it makes is so wilfully ignorant of that subtext it just serves to poison it.
Imma just take a moment right here to praise the performances of our leads. Bill Nighy is a dude who in some of his more recent roles (I’m thinking Dad’s Army, Their Finest) has been relying a bit more on his standard bag of tricks. There’s none of them present in this joint, it’s a real character driven performance and it’s great I mean, I love peak Nighy but the understatement he brings here is so buoyant.
Also Olivia Cooke is great as always, I just wanna get her pushed into better movies. We got Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and Katie Says Goodbye and then this, she a better performer than all these movies. Maybe Ready Player One will get her more attention but I’m super worried about that flick. She been great in everything but her roles ain’t been great to her.
I imagine if you got most of the way through this review you’ll probably have been able to figure out the final twist and the true identity of the murderer. You might be a little annoyed at me. Don’t sweat yourself about it, I put about as much work into concealing it as the film did.
The Limehouse Golem is currently screening in UK cinemas.