Bill Nighy has, let's face it, been making a lot of people happy by playing what we all consider a version of Bill Nighy onscreen for the past couple of decades. He's the elderly gent with a wry sense of humour, ready to give us a wink before heading off to the dancefloor with a crowd of youngsters who have embraced his good company. He's basically the cool uncle at a wedding party, although that means you sometimes roll your eyes when he shows up because you know he's going to be there a bit too long, might still be wearing jeans when they don't suit him, and will probably ask the DJ for a bit of Whigfield near the end of the night. Some people will always enjoy those moments, whereas some people will start to feel bitter about him. I am in the former camp, but I can see why people may start falling into the latter camp.
Why have I started this review with that rambling, poor, analogy about an uncle at a wedding party? Well, The Limehouse Golem is an interesting and surprising film for many reasons, but the main one may be what a great lead role it hands to Bill Nighy. And he does so well with it that you are reminded of how talented the man is. Like meeting that cool uncle during the week, when he is in between meetings during a typically busy work day. The fun aspect of him is just that, one aspect.
Anyway, let me get to the film itself. Directed by Juan Carlos Medina, who previously gave us Painless AKA Insensibles, this is a very dark murder mystery, so bloody on the odd occasion that most horror fans should be kept happy enough, set during a time in London not that far removed from the exploits of Jack The Ripper. Indeed, this feels very much like a Jack The Ripper film in all but name. It's based on a book by Peter Ackroyd, and the script was written by Jane Goldman (possibly her best work), but I have no idea if the source material tries to make things more or less . . . "Ripper-esque".
Nighy plays John Kildare, a lawman tasked with solving the series of murders perpetrated by a mysterious figure people have taken to referring to as The Limehouse Golem. Kildare is a man who has already had his reputation questioned, due to his perceived aversion to female company, and he knows that he has been given this case as a pretty hopeless endeavour. He will take the expected fall if no culprit is caught. Olivia Cooke plays Lizzie Cree, a woman put on trial for the crime of poisoning her husband, and the two tales quickly intertwine as Kildare starts to suspect that helping Lizzie may actually help him solve the case. He believes that she knows something she doesn't want to reveal to the public, a secret she may end up taking to the grave if she is found guilty, and he wants to gain her trust, learn her full story, and kill two birds with one stone, so to speak.
Nighy is just great in all of his scenes here. He doesn't overdo things, this isn't a role looking to squeeze comedy out of his usual demeanour and mannerisms, and viewers get to stick close to him and his appointed assistant (Daniel Mays) as clues are uncovered and witnesses questioned. Cooke is also excellent, allowed much more screentime as the investigation delves deeper and deeper into her life story. Douglas Booth and Sam Reid both do well, playing men in Lizzie's life, and also suspects in the case (the latter is the murdered husband - no spoiler, that is how the film begins), and you also get enjoyable performances from Eddie Marsan and Maria Valverde.
Every aspect of this production is polished and handled with care. Medina brings everything together beautifully, with impressive camerawork throughout allowing viewers to be fully immersed in the world depicted onscreen. It's grimy and gorgeous at the same time, with impressive sound design and an effective score also helping, yet none of the details or flourishes ever detract from the performances that sell every scene. The structure may disappoint some - shock opener, a hefty middle section full of characterisation and details, fairly swift resolution - but it will work well for those who don't need jumps or set-pieces every 10-15 minutes. Sometimes the joy is in the destination, sometimes in the journey. The joy here is in both.
Goldman deserves a decent amount of praise for her script. It's masterful in the handling of the characters, with plenty of ambiguity throughout to keep viewers guessing the identity of the killer, alongside Kildare. And I must say, as slow as I can sometimes be with movies like this, I was very impressed by the finale.
I am sure that many sharper viewers will be unsurprised by anything the film delivers, and it does enough to allow you to be one or two steps ahead of the main characters, but I loved how it was put together, and I was also surprised by one or two moments throughout. Highly recommended.
You can get The Limehouse Golem here on bluray.
Or here, Americanos.