To begin at the end, as musical hall star Dan Leno (Douglas Booth) says, is to open with the death of writer John Cree (Sam Reid), who was found dead at his home one morning by his maid, Aveline Ortega (María Valverde). The police were called, and the constable in charge, George Flood (Daniel Mays), admitted to Cree's widow Lizzie (Olivia Cooke) that he was a big fan of her work on the stage, for she was an ex-performer, but when Aveline alleged her mistress had prepared her husband's night time cordial, Lizzie found herself under arrest on suspicion of murder. There was only one man who could save her, and he had been brought in to investigate a series of sensational murders...
This man was Inspector John Kildare, played by Bill Nighy in considerably more restrained mode than he was in his comedy roles, not that the rest of the movie was following suit. Based on a Peter Ackroyd novel and adapted by Jane Goldman, its Victorian trappings - it was set in 1880 - tended to mask the inherently ludicrous plotting, leading up to a last act twist that even if you had seen it coming a mile off, still came across as both a betrayal of the characters and the whole theme of injustice done to women of that period. Be that the legal position they found themselves in, the poverty they were faced with should they not find support, or the atrocity of getting slaughtered.
What this wanted to be was a Jack the Ripper yarn, but as that had been done to death, pardon the pun, here we had a whole different set of circumstances which nevertheless were curiously familiar to anyone who had seen, say, the eighties Ripper miniseries starring Michael Caine which bore a marked similarity to this. There was the same drawing in of actual historical figures to the plot, for a start, which reflected poorly on them to the point of near-defamation: one bizarre sequence, quickly revealed as fanciful, saw Karl Marx (Henry Goodman) posited as the murderer, complete with shots of him gleefully cutting up an innocent female victim. It was teetering on the brink of parody throughout.
You could imagine with a few more jokes it would make for a passable horror movie variation on The Two Ronnies' The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town, or something for Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders to take aim at in one of their spot-on sketch show send-ups. Director Juan Carlos Medina was able to walk a tightrope of a semblance of seriousness for some portion of the running time as for a while we could be fooled into thinking there was a sincere attempt to examine the mores of the Victorian era, perhaps with reference to what had changed and what had stayed the same into the twenty-first century, though the sense of a widescreen gloss of cinema placed on a story rather more suited to Sunday night television was never far away, and even then you imagine a lot of eye-rolling would have occurred in living rooms across the land.
Cooke's Lizzie Cree never quite convinced as an earthy music hall artiste, and the material she was given did her no favours as none of her gags raised so much as a titter, though the screen audience in the theatre were in fits of hysterics for no real reason we could see. Booth delivered the most interesting interpretation, if that was not damning him with faint praise, but if he seemed too modern then at least his Dan Leno stood out from the gorblimey mannerisms afflicting the rest of the cast who too often looked like they were slumming, and barely holding themselves back from going full, overripe ham. Only Nighy approached dignity, but when he was supposedly the smartest man in the room the eventual revelation rendered him more of a moron than an unsung intellect in a society that did not appreciate him. Every so often we were treated, if that was the right word, to horror movie scenes of people being murdered, not only women, yet while lurid they were never integrated into the rest of the film, mostly because what we would now call a serial killer, the Limehouse Golem, had an identity that was so superficial in its moves towards a big surprise, it made a farce of the entire project. So much for sisterhood. Music by Johan Söderqvist.