A woman carrying grocery bags navigates a difficult obstacle course to reach her home. The obstacle? Rows upon rows of police tape.
London Road, adapted from Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork’s hit play, is based on interviews conducted with residents of the Ipswich, England, street where five prostitutes were found murdered over 40 days in 2006. Like the play, the film transforms a true-crime story not just into a musical, but into slapstick comedy.
Title cards introduce the film’s conceit: “This is what they said … exactly as they said it.” London Road is an example of verbatim theater, which takes recordings and fashions songs that reproduce their spoken cadences.
Yet even before this statement of purpose is declared, one of the interviewees immediately gets at what’s wrong with the concept: “If you don’t get your point of view across,” says community organizer Julie (Olivia Colman, recently seen in The Lobster), a single mother. “They’ll label us something that we’re not.”
Thanks to her naturalistic performance, Colman largely escapes this fate, but she is one of the exceptions. The movie essentially depicts Ipswich residents not as humans with a song to sing, but as dramatic pawns with a melody to carry.
The film might have been an indictment of a media that turns tragedy into entertainment. But director Rufus Norris (Broken), adapting his own National Theatre production, sets a conflicted tone, eliciting performances that too often seem like arch caricatures more than human beings. On stage, 11 actors performed multiple roles, but for the film some 70 actors are in play, which may have been harder to pull off.
After London Road resident Steve Wright is arrested, the movie briefly steps back from its conceit and is more effective for it. But the strongest scenes in a musical should not be the ones without music.
When the area’s remaining prostitutes lament their sad fate in song, it strikes a tone that may be as close to appropriate as you can get in a musical about murdered prostitutes.
Unfortunately, the movie turns even slicker with a mad choreographed rush around the courthouse when the verdict is read and Wright is found guilty.
London Road is not especially disrespectful to the murder victims, who for the most part stay outside the film’s scope. It is, however, quite patronizing to the citizens of London Road, who are mostly treated as rubbernecking, paranoid and unattractive second-class citizens sheepishly caught up in a media frenzy.
Verbatim theater takes cues from Dennis Potter’s Pennies From Heaven, a musical about ordinary people that treated its characters with romance and dignity. But London Road comes across as no more than tabloid karaoke.
Exclusive: Angelika Dallas
☆☆ 1/2 (out of five)
Director: Rufus Norris
Cast: Olivia Colman, Tom Hardy, James Doherty
Rated: Unrated (strong language, sexual situations, references to murder)
Running time: 92 min.