As someone who is not overly into literature that does not have magic, swords, space travel or laser guns in it, I was not the keenest of chaps to see this Peter Ackroyd novel on the big screen. It was my Gothic-loving girlfriend that convinced me it would be worth the watch. Sceptical as ever, I begrudgingly booked our seats in an otherwise empty cinema and so our destiny on that fateful Friday was written.
It turns out; my low expectations were met by a piece of artwork.
I’ll start with Bill Nighy. Arguably the vessel of exposition, he does a grand job of holding the piece together. The protagonist in our excursion to Victorian London does a superb job of holding our focus. I put this down to two things. The first is that his performance is that tight-lipped and intense, you forget that he is usually known for comedic ventures in film. This adds to the already smoky and chilling setting of the tale. A ‘Jack the Ripper-esque‘ serial-killer sets their sights on seemingly random targets and it is up to our determined but very likable Inspector Kildare to riddle the riddles and puzzle the puzzles.
As you might expect, there are twists and turns in the plot (which, I am told, runs parallel to the book - albeit with a much more superficial exploration of the characters, themes, etc. But that was to be expected). Nighy and his quirky, puppy-like colleague George Flood (Daniel Mays) are hell-bent on solving the case as well as saving the femme fatale, Elizabeth (Olivia Cooke). In the following 120 minutes, all manner of gory and unnecessarily graphic events unfurl with our gruesome twosome not far behind each display of sadistic passion.
That being said, the overblown butchery is intrinsically linked to motives of certain characters – so in the carnage that ensues, I think it is stylistic rather than purposelessness.
I’ve read a few reviews now and whilst I agree with a large proportion of them, there is one recurring statement that I wholly disagree with – the writing is poor. I’m of the opposite school of thought. I thought the writing was sublime. It was clever, concise and splattered with a Victorian syntax – consisting of everyday language; the dialogue was written and delivered in a manner that entirely suited the era. Some words and phrases were so well constructed and spoken that they were a delight to listen to.
Speaking of the delivery, the other aspect of the film I was pleasantly surprised by was the general calibre of the acting. Now, I had not heard of the vast majority making up the cast but each and every member held up their own parts beautifully. Douglas Booth was especially striking. As the dark yet hopeful extrovert clown, his scenes are a delight; permanently walking, what seems like, the fine line between complacently living a fake happiness and admitting defeat.
With all the positives though, there are downfalls. I cannot decide whether it was the editing or directing but something was missing. The entire film, it felt like an amateur chef had been given the most expensive ingredients possible: Talented, ambitious and focused actors, superbly crafted writing, set-design that could have been London itself but together they just felt like singularities in a mix that nearly blended. Moreover, the music was somewhat lacking for my tastes. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for minimal music scores - John Carpenter is brilliant, but Johan Söderqvist’s score didn’t quite cut it for me; it wasn’t quite up to the standard of some of the other films aspects. It works in places but when the pace slows there not a great deal to focus on and could do with a small piece of composition to see us through.
I still think it is worth a watch. In fact, it is definitely worth a watch - a pleasantly fresh, relatively unknown, charming piece of Victorian melodrama. In its subtle ridiculousness, it works. If there is an underrated film this summer, it’s very likely going to be this one. I’ll refrain from saying underdog…
If you’ve seen it, yet to see it, agree or disagree, I’d love to hear your thoughts @MugwumpBlog