Peter Ackroyd’s novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem – which draws inspiration from the contemporary boondoggle involving a diary that purported to reveal James Maybrick, known to criminal history as a victim of poisoning by his wife, was Jack the Ripper – has had to be very carefully adapted (by Jane Goldman) to come up with a way of dramatising the diary stretches of the narrative without giving away a) whodunit and b) the tricky device whereby the writing of the diary itself is another crime, with its own murderous purpose. The downside of this is that quite a lot of what we see is only provisional, and there are prompts which inevitably point the finger of guilt … but it’s a rich and satisfying hansom cab ride to get to the complicated conclusion.
Circa 1880, policeman John Kildare (Bill Nighy) is handed the poisoned chalice of the unsolved ‘Limehouse Golem’ case, a string of killings which prefigure Jack the Ripper but also revolve around the famous Ratcliff Highway murders of generations earlier which inspired an essay by Thomas de Quincey. The killer’s account of the crimes is found scrawled in the British Library’s copy of de Quincey, which handily gives Kildare four unlikely suspects – three real people, and journalist-playwright John Cree (Sam Reid), a fictional character based on Maybrick. The real people are music hall turn Dan Leno (Douglas Booth, with crooked teeth), novelist George Gissing (Morgan Watkins) and Karl Marx (Henry Goodman). As he reads the accounts, Kildare imagines the crimes being committed by these Victorian celebrities – though there’s so much guilt sloshing around that he practically writes himself in as well, evoking (of all things) the Ripper-inspired Boris Karloff slasher Grip of the Strangler (where the detective finds out he’s also the killer). In parallel, Kildare visits the trial and then the prison cell of Lizzie Cree (Olivia Cooke, very good in what amounts to several roles), an ex-music hall star who is accused of poisoning her husband John, and may have done so in the knowledge that he was a worse murderer than she. This brings in flashbacks about her rise from abused orphan to star turn as a male impersonator (Leno does a female act) in the oddly idyllic yet vicious world of popular entertainment, where she has to overcome and replace a lecherous dwarf sidekick (????), cope with the devotion of a benevolent manager with his own nasty secrets (and tattoos) (Eddie Marsan) and clash with a spiteful, envious acrobat (Aveline Ortega).
The theme is that everyone is presenting multiple false fronts – the most unpleasant character turns out, in the event, to be quite justified … and sympathies are always misplaced. Even Kildare is a closeted gay – which his sidekick (Daniel Mays) has surprisingly little trouble with – and only the lastingly famous Leno tells the truth all the time, with a cloud over his actions in the very last scene as he transforms horrors he was personally involved with into a music hall melodrama which might also be a murder method. It depends on deception so much that there’s a risk of not getting caught up in the story and the characters – even the great detective is a gullible idiot in some ways – but director Juan Carlos Medina (Painless), stepping in after Terry Gilliam worked over the material, does a splendid job of keeping all the elements in motion. So much goes on that we might want more – some of us are waiting for that full-on George Gissing biopic, for instance – but this has a lovely Hammer Films look, with lashings of grue (Damien Thomas, of Twins of Evil, is amoing the victims – suffering a particularly gruesome indignity). It collides elements of Ripper Street and Topsy-Turvy, which is fine by me – you might add in a certain weighting for my opinion since this includes so many things I’m interested in and (indeed) have written about. It’s dedicated to Alan Rickman, originally cast as Kildare but unable to make the film due to his final illness.