I think we can all agree that Bill Nighy is great can’t we? It seems weird to think that he only became a household name in 1998 after his break out performance in Still Crazy, a film everyone seems to have forgotten. Since then Nighy has excelled as somewhat eccentric family members (the excellent About Time for example) or, being British, getting paid handsomely to appear as the villain in various Hollywood studio movies (the terrible I, Frankenstein for example). He even managed to get good reviews for the second and third Pirates of the Carribean films, which is impressive as nothing else did.
However what has been missing has been some proper Bill Nighy starrers to stretch him a bit. We all know he can do it, give him that role. Well here we are with The Limehouse Golem and thank god for that.
Nighy plays Inspector John Kildare, fighting his way through the smoggy streets of Victorian London, being set up by his own force to fail to find the Ripper-like Golem. Seeing as Kildare is not “the marrying kind” he is ostracised by his peers and officers. He is given little help: the Golem case seems as unsolvable as Jack the Ripper was, so the set up for him to succeed against all odds seems like a good one for a film. However he is quickly sidelined by one of the suspect’s wife who is accused of his murder. Might she have killed the man who was the Golem in order to save other victims?
Of course we have been all around Victorian London’s seedy underbelly countless times before. It is all here too: cheeky cockneys, rough ladies of the night, ruddy street urchins, old time music halls and opium dens aplenty. Considering this is not the most expensive looking film ever made, it manages to conjure up a good feeling of authenticity by making everything so goddam dirty and mirky. Even the daylight scenes seem to have a darkness hanging over them. Director Juan Carlos Medina and his team also have a terrific understanding of using light and silhouette to make the city of London feel even more dangerous and mysterious than it is.
However what The Limehouse Golem is really about is the acting. Here the script is not only served brilliantly by Nighy but also by, although not limited too, Olivia Cooke, the hapless wife of the Golem suspect. With her character we delve into what it must have been like to be a poor woman in Victorian England, not only with little chance of pulling yourself out of whatever shit pit you were born into, but then even if you did, contemporary attitudes towards women were at best violent, and at worse, well… much worse! Trying to make your mark in that world in any positive way must have been a grim prospect – one character even says “if I die and I go to hell, I’m not sure I’ll know the difference.” Cooke, who has already proved herself in Bate’s Motel and Me, Earl and The Dying Girl, really has to stretch herself, doing everything from a broken women accused of poisoning to a stage clown. She’s terrific.
Centre stage though it is Nighy who holds the film together so well. His softly spoken performance at first seems to be at odds with what we know as a typical Scotland Yard inspector of yore. But its this very casting against type which make his Kildare so fascinating and such a treat. It helps that the central mystery is such a good one too, but its Nighy’s determination to solve it that makes The Limehouse Golem worth looking through the mist for.