The Limehouse Golem ★★★

Reviewed this week on Cinema Eclectica, although I'm not on this one.
Also part of Consenting Adults: Fifty Years of British Pride.

In the spirit of Bill Nighy's awkwardly closeted Victorian police officer, allow me to make a confession I have carried around with me for far too long: I don't think the Hughes brothers' version of From Hell is terrible. Admittedly I haven't watched it recently, and it is miscast. But I can see the traces of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's masterpiece in it, and the source is so dense that I don't expect much more than traces.

Jane Goldman's script for Juan Carlos Medina's adaptation of Peter Ackroyd's similarly psychogeographical Victorian London thriller Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem has a lot of the same virtues, and one of the most serious errors. Like From Hell, it restructures its source text as a whodunnit, but it fails to provide enough viable killers. Medina creates fantasy sequences showing each suspect carrying out one of the Golem's murders, but the sheer absurdity of watching Karl Marx behead a prostitute should have tipped the film-makers off to the problems here.

To Ackroyd, these characters were mainly interesting as a route into London subcultures. The Limehouse Golem does manage to preserve some of that, particularly the music hall and the gay scene. The latter dovetails nicely with Ackroyd's new book Queer City, but it also seems heartfelt on the part of the film-makers. There's a nice structural parallel between two pairs of unlikely allies; Daniel Mays's young policeman tells Nighy's Inspector Kildare "I'm on your side", which may be an offer of professional support or a subtle coming-out, while Olivia Cooke's abused wife Elizabeth Cree befriends Douglas Booth's cross-dressing music hall comic Dan Leno because she sees a deep affection for femininity in his performances.

That said, in Booth's lusty, louche turn Leno has a tendency to revel in the abuse of his female characters, and while the film has more enlightened gender politics it's similarly macabre. I grew up at a time when John Major was trying to position the Victorian era as the ne plus ultra of British morality, and it still feels delightfully taboo to watch portrayals of the era that are as sour as this. Full of child prostitution, rancid tabloids, casual bigotry and grisly, skull-smashing violence, its horrors can't completely be divorced from its politics, even if it doesn't ram the anger home as much as Moore and Campbell did.