A serial killer is on the loose in Victorian London. A woman’s life hangs in the balance. Bill Nighy stars as detective John Kildare in a stunning adaptation of Peter Ackroyd's literary thriller
Set on the unforgiving, squalid streets of Victorian London in 1880, the story begins in the baroque, grandiose music hall where the capital's most renowned performer Dan Leno (Douglas Booth) takes to the stage.
The whimsical thespian performs a monologue, telling his captivated audience of the ghastly fate of a young woman who had once adorned this very stage, his dear friend Elizabeth Cree (Olivia Cooke). The beguiling songstress is accused of murdering her husband John Cree (Sam Reid) – and faces death by hanging.
Lizzie's death seems inevitable, until Detective Inspector John Kildare (Bill Nighy) is assigned to the case of the Limehouse Golem – a nefarious, calculating serial killer, murdering innocent, unconnected victims, leaving behind barely identifiable corpses – and his distinctive signature in blood.
All is not what it seems. Everyone has a secret. Everyone is a suspect.
The production process
The Limehouse Golem is based on the popular 1994 novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, also known as The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, by the acclaimed British author Peter Ackroyd.
Set amidst the sordid grandiosity of Victorian London, it's a tale that film producer Stephen Woolley felt was fit for the silver screen, but admits it was one he had initially struggled to get off the ground.
“The project began 15 years or so ago, I had an ongoing deal with Dreamworks,” he says. “I read the book with the idea of doing a film with Neil Jordan, but the rights were with Merchant Ivory at that point. I had to wait four years and then I got a call from the publishers to say the rights had now lapsed, so I bought them and developed for three years with a writer for Terry Gilliam, but we never quite cracked the script. The rights lapsed and another producer took the project up. Then I was having lunch with scriptwriter Jane Goldman and she talked about how much she loved The Limehouse Golem and so we started the adventure afresh again.”
Hiring a director with an impeccable track record was key to the film’s success
With writer Jane Goldman on board, the hunt was on to find a director to bring this tale to life – and though relatively unknown, the producers opted for American born Juan Carlos Medina.
“We thought about several British directors, and possibly American,” explains Stephen Wooley. “but we always erred on the side of bringing someone else in, in the way Ackroyd's eye was very different, we wanted someone outside of the net, an outsider's view that would not be encumbered by the idea of being historically accurate, and thematically we wanted it to not have the confines of a genre that you understand or recognise, so the mix between fantasy and realism was very important.”
“The Limehouse Golem is a whodunnit, but a very challenging one,” says Medina. “The journey towards knowing who the killer is will be just as fascinating and thought-provoking as the mere fact of knowing who it eventually turns out to be.
"That was the challenge, to make a hypnotic and fascinating journey," he adds. "Hitchcock said once he did not particularly like whodunnits because they are an intellectual game devoid of emotion, you were only waiting for the ending, to know who the killer was. I’ve always wondered about this, as I am fascinated by the genre. So that was an important challenge.”
What attracted Bill Nighy to the project?
“There aren't many scripts that are this uncomplicatedly good,” says Bill Nighy – who plays the role of Detective Inspector John Kildare, tasked with uncovering the identity of the serial killer, Limehouse Golem.
“Research isn't necessary with a script of this quality, any information you need is within the text. I'm old enough now to quite honestly say that I have done absolutely no research whatsoever. It gives me pleasure to say that, because for years there was a certain taboo where you're supposed to say you have. But if the writing is any good you don't need to know much more – it should be contained within the piece.”
“Bill is such a gentleman and an example for everyone,” says Medina. “People want to be around him – he's one of the nicest people I've met in my whole life. He made all the other actors confident and that helped a lot. Actors are like mirrors, they need a great actor in front of them to also be good, and the better the actor in front of them is, the better they are. They're emotional sponges. So when you have someone like Bill, who is so powerfully intense, you're sure you will get great performances from the rest of the actors. I have a dream cast, I couldn't have dreamt of a better one. I'm so proud and so happy with them.”
The cast includes Olivia Cooke as Lizzie Cree, Douglas Booth as Dan Leno, Sam Reid as John Cree, Daniel Mays as Flood and Eddie Marsan as the Uncle.
Bringing Peter Ackroyd's novel to life
“The book was a fascinating trip,” explains Medina. “It’s one of the most visionary and powerful by Ackroyd. What I found in the book was a profound meditation about identity, about the existence of self in society, about the rebellion against order through the transgression of self, of genre, of morality.”
Doing Ackroyd justice is primarily a pressure encompassed by script writer Jane Goldman, tasked with adapting his words into a linear, coherent screenplay which remained faithful to the original tone, and yet was unique and innovative in its own right.
“I wanted to try and replicate the tone of the book in the language of a film, which is tough. It was an exciting challenge though, especially as this is so many different things. It's a whodunnit, it's a riveting and disturbing story of a woman's life and it's also a sort of horror.
“I felt the book had all three elements, which was a lot of the appeal to me, and I wanted so much to replicate that,” she said. “I felt that my first allegiance always had to be the book and staying true to the source material, but it was difficult and uncomfortable at times because these were real people. But there's a surreal edge to it that I hope the descendants of the real people, of which there are three, take it for what it is, which is a strange, wonderful surrealistic tale which combines fiction with elements of truth.”
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