Was Karl Marx actually Jack the Ripper? If director Juan Carlos Medina’s The Limehouse Golem doesn’t actually ask that question, it asks a similar one. During a hunt for a murderer in 1880s London, the whiskery Marx is a suspect; one reenactment of the crime has him caped, glowering and talking straight to the camera in the slowed-down devil’s voice, before wielding a straight razor.
It’s adapted from Peter Ackroyd’s tricky novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. It cuts down literary figures such as Marx, George Gissing and Thomas De Quincey who peopled the book, in favor of a Holmes-and-Watson-like team on the case. John Kildare (Bill Nighy) is a disliked police inspector, pushed into the job. Assigned to help him is George Flood, a fleshy London copper (Daniel Mays) who has been on the Limehouse beat for some time.
The investigation is catalyzed by the testimony of former music hall star Lizzie Cree (Olivia Cooke). She faces the gallows for the accused arsenic murder of her husband John (Sam Reid). Kildare suspects John of being the killer in a ghastly crime wave.
Lizzie’s break into show business came courtesy of music hall performer Dan Leno (Douglas Booth). As Leno is described in the book, you imagine him as a job for Eddie Redmayne. Booth, by contrast, is a very contemporary type of handsome guy. He’s also menacing, but he can’t give us the shade of the famous Leno.
The revelation is unsatisfactory, with withheld evidence and reverse angles we didn’t get clues on the first time around. Nighy’s role is, in outline, Holmes-like. But his Kildare is less competent than Sherlock, so he’s a tragic figure; it’s one of the least comic parts he’s taken. Maybe Nighy could take over the Vincent Price roles that Ian McKellan seemed perfect for once—does he have a taste for this sort of gaslight and madness material?
‘The Limehouse Golem;’ available September 8 on VOD.