This Ripper-esque murder mystery, adapted from the novel by Peter Ackroyd and written for the screen by Jane Goldman, has plenty of things to commend it, even if the story seems a little over-familiar. Bill Nighy (in a role originally intended for the late Alan Rickman) plays Inspector John Kildare, brought in by his superiors to investigate a series of grisly murders in the East End of London. Kildare, we quickly learn, has been passed over for promotion because he is a homosexual. The baffling nature of the crimes suggest he’s being offered as some kind of sacrificial lamb, somebody to take the inevitable hit when he fails to get a conviction.
Kildare is also drawn into the trial of former music hall star, Elizabeth Cree (Olivia Cooke), who stands accused of poisoning her husband, John (Sam Reid). The problem is that the dead man is one of the chief suspects for the Golem murders. The others are famous music hall star, Dan Leno (Douglas Booth), George Gissing (Morgan Watkins) and Karl Marx (Henry Goodman): yes, that Karl Marx! Assisted by Constable George Flood (Daniel Mays), Kildare starts his investigation – and quickly discovers that he is wandering into a very tangled web indeed…
So yes, plenty to enjoy here – superlative performances from most of the cast (especially Booth), an intriguing look at the kind of entertainment laid on in the music halls of the period (I have to say, people must have been easily pleased in those days – it’s not exactly comedy gold) and some convincing recreations of Victorian London in all its grubby glory. And yet, something doesn’t quite gel. The story unfolds slowly and fitfully, feeling longer than it’s one hour and forty nine minute running time. It only generates a full head of steam as it moves towards the final half hour or so. Nighy is always a pleasure to watch, but I couldn’t help feeling he wasn’t really given enough to do here, required mostly to stand around and look perplexed.
It would be criminal to give away the ending, so I won’t – but suffice to say, that I thought it was one of the stronger elements of the film. Rookie director Juan Carlos Medina may not have the lightness of touch needed to make this work perfectly, but it’s nonetheless a decent effort.
Be warned, though, the visceral murder scenes are not for the squeamish.