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A father and son are in a car accident. They both are taken to the emergency room. When the boy is taken by stretcher to his emergency operation, the surgeon says, "I cannot operate because he is my son." How is this possible?
I was reminded of this riddle all throughout watching The Limehouse Golem, an atmospheric and detailed Victorian era mystery. In it, a series of murders have scandalized the east London district that bears the film's name. Inspector Kildare (Nighy) is put on the case partially out of political convenience. "The public needs fresh blood," says the power hungry Inspector Roberts (Sullivan). To whit Kildare is primed to be Scotland Yard's newest scapegoat. As luck would have however, Kildare comes to believe the serial murders are linked to another case that of a young actress, Lizzie Cree (Cooke); accused of poisoning her husband (Reid). Can the embattled Inspector crack the case before Lizzie is sent to the gallows? Despite having the pedigree of a slightly cheaper Downton Abbey (2010-2015), the atmosphere of Limehouse Golem is surprisingly layered. The squalid city streets, the busy wings of the burlesque, the hallowed halls of the Limehouse Library (really the John Rylands Library in Manchester) all shot with foreboding beauty in mind. Likewise the camera glides seamlessly between scenes of murder and actors weaving macabre recreations of current events. Theater, so it seems, is its own form of alchemy and director Juan Carlos Medina is determined to show off what jewels he can create.
Yet while the film does its due diligence to build its case, the main conceit can't help but leave the impassive viewer uninspired. Don't get me wrong, the plot makes sense but this is a police procedural with a capital P. And as with any police procedural, much of the case is spent trying and failing to create a working scenario with a diverse array of suspects based on the clues provided. Depending on your investment you may just be frustrated that Kildare and his lapdog Constable (Mays) aren't barking up a different tree. If however you're old-school flabbergasted by the big third act reveal, chances are you walked into a mystery movie by mistake.
So essentially the mystery doesn't live up to its own hype but the good news is the acting definitely does. Bill Nighy and Douglas Booth are fabulous as always with Booth stealing all the best lines as a vaudeville star and Lizzie's effeminate best friend. The real takeaway however is Sam Reid as John Cree the husband who may or may not be the titular bloodthirsty Golem. While remaining a suspect throughout the film's nearly two-hour run time, Reid remains effortlessly charming. He subtly reveals through action that his character has plenty to hide and can play multiple versions of himself (depending on the narrator) with aplomb. Olivia Cooke likewise gives a stunning performance though because she narrates large swaths of the story proper, she isn't given as much an opportunity to show rather than tell.
Considering the movie is based on a novel written by Peter Ackroyd, Limehouse could have been far more of a trial than it ended up being. Thankfully Jane Goldman's capable script and Juan Carlos Medina's affecting direction is the one-two punch needed to prevent The Limehouse Golem from being a gloomy trudge through Victorian England. It could have been a better mystery but at least its not as airless as it could have been.
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