WRITTEN REVIEW – London Road (2015)
Directed by: Rufus Norris
Written by: Alecky Blythe
Starring: Olivia Colman, Anita Dobson & Tom Hardy
Music: Adam Cork
Release Date: June 12th 2015
In late 2006 five female prostitutes between the ages of 19 and 29 were murdered in Ipswich, Suffolk by 48 year old Steve Wright. The unmotivated serial murders became a huge media story both in the U.K. and internationally as everyone’s eyes were laser-focused on the killer and the street where he lived. However, amidst the chaos and the media scandal, writer Alecky Blythe visited Wright’s street and interviewed all of the residents there as the investigation took place. The residents more than welcomed her because despite the fact that the Ipswich serial murders brought a lot of the press to the street, no one had asked the local residents what they thought.
These interviews were recorded and transcribed into a musical stage production for the National Theatre in 2011, directed by Rufus Norris called “London Road”. The play was a smash hit and was nominated for “Best New Musical, “Best Director”, “Best Theatre Choreographer” and “Best Actress in a Musical” at the Laurence Olivier Awards as well as receiving rave, five-star reviews. Now, Rufus Norris has directed a big-screen version of the musical, with many of the original ensemble cast members of the National Theatre and produced by BBC Films. Does the added star-power of Olivia Colman and Tom Hardy add to this story, or is it just capitalising on a very recent tragedy?
On London Road in Ipswich in 2006, everybody knows everybody but they very much keep to themselves. This doesn’t change when an unknown neighbour moves into one of the houses there around the same time that prostitutes start getting murdered nearby. This brings the world’s media to London Road as well as heavy police involvement in order to try and find the killer who could be any one of the citizens on the road. This makes everyone very nervous, but as the trial of suspect Steve Wright progresses, the town starts to come together to improve their image, led by the head of the newly formed Neighbourhood Watch, Julie (Colman).
Two things to quickly address. 1) I have not seen the original musical. And 2) Don’t go into ‘London Road‘ thinking it’s a Olivia Colman and Tom Hardy movie. Not only is ‘London Road‘ an ensemble cast with most of the characters getting equal screentime and musical involvement, but Tom Hardy is only in the movie for about 2 minutes, maximum, while only getting to take part in one duet. It’s strange to see Tom Hardy on certain versions of the movie poster as well as getting top billing when, in the movie, he’s the 17th person to be credited.
‘London Road‘ is also not a biopic about Steve Wright or the murders as they happen off-screen with the police investigation only happening around the edges of the movie in order to provide a set-up for the ensemble cast. It’s about all of the ordinary people who live on London Road who are emotionally affected by a tragic series of events right on their doorstep who embraced the opportunity to have their stories told. The original interviews with the locals conducted by Alecky Blythe were recorded and transcribed by Adam Cork who didn’t alter the words they spoke in any way.
Every “Urm”, “Ahh”, minor inflection or moment of stammer and pause in the interviews found its way into the music. In fact, in order to prove its authenticity, the original interviews play over the credits of ‘London Road‘. This musical not only tells the story of these ordinary people, it takes the words right out of their mouths and converts it into one of the most unique-sounding musicals I’ve ever seen.
Incidentally, it was such a clever touch that the actual music doesn’t really kick in during the movie until the news reports and the media coverage of the murders. On-the-nose cultural commentary, but well earned.
The musical style has the inspirations from the work of Herbert Kretzmer and Stephen Sondheim in terms of over-lapping lyrics and large scale chorus songs, but using the repeated words taken from the interviews gives ‘London Road‘ an odd feel at first. However, once you find the movie’s rhythm and pace and adjust to the non-eloquent lyrical stylings, you’ll find some deeply honest lyrics that reflect a very paranoid and frightened community. Because the murderer could have been anyone on the street, “Everyone is very very nervous” including two teenage girls who are so excited, yet scared, that they’re “just gonna, like, cry”.
‘London Road‘ is a group-character piece with brutally honest interviews with even Olivia Colman’s character, Julie, saying she doesn’t feel sad about the dead prostitutes because they were causing local problems. All of the characters are very well portrayed by a brilliant ensemble cast from the National Theatre, many of whom are reprising their roles from the 2011 original run. As great as seeing celebrities in big-screen musicals is, like Johnny Depp in ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street‘ or Catherine Zeta-Jones in ‘Chicago‘, it’s equally great, if not more so, to see properly trained musical performers in a movie like this.
Group performance aspects such as the dance choreography, harmonising etc. demonstrate that this ensemble from the National Theatre are a well-oiled machine of creativity and quality and out of the two big-names attached to the project, Olivia Colman acquits herself the best as she has long-since nailed the “every-woman” in TV dramas and U.K. films like this one. Tom Hardy on the other hand, while far from bad, feels like a prime example of stunt-casting. Tom Hardy is SUCH a big name after the success of ‘The Dark Knight Rises‘, ‘Mad Max: Fury Road‘ and such, that he simple does not fit as an “ordinary” person who lives on this road. Even then, he only gets one duet, and a wordless cameo in a scene later on. He’s not bad in the film, but he really does stand-out, even more so by his complete absence from 97% of the film (ish) and having no presence in the story.
Though, to be fair, ‘London Road‘ really doesn’t have much of a story. Most of the narrative progression takes place off-screen with the Steve Wright trial and the road’s reaction to the developments and the events. In fact, Steve Wright is never actually seen on-screen. In terms of an end-game in ‘London Road‘, the movie is culminating towards a “London Road in Bloom” event in order to try and make the most of a bad event. However, ‘London Road‘, despite aiming for an optimistic end-game and being a musical, is actually a very bitter-sweet watch. Not just due to the basis in reality for the murders and the honest, down-to-earth reactions of the people (taken word-for-word from interviews) but also because the VERY end of the movie indicates that there are real, ever-present problems in this community that maybe can’t just be solved by putting flowers up everywhere. It’s the type of ending that kinda leaves you silent at the end because you need to digest just what tone ‘London Road‘ is going for with that ending, but it does stick with you.
On the production side, ‘London Road‘ is decent, though nothing particularly noteworthy, even from the low-budget U.K. scene. Director Rufus Norris has done a few films before, and while ‘London Road‘ is clearly his most ambitious to date, it is clear that the theatre is where he feels right at home. It’s not a bad looking film, but unless the ensemble cast are taking part in visually dynamic, extended choreographed sequences, it doesn’t visually pop. The muted colour palette is clearly a stylistic choice, but the camera framing doesn’t do much to off-set that to make it much more interesting. It’s not a bad looking movie, I’ve just seen way more made with way less.
The editing is another story entirely as the energetic pace of the song sequences does take you on a very unique ride as the rhythm and pace of these songs are so unique in the movie-musical genre. The music production is naturally top-notch, but the low-budget seams of the movie are apparent.
‘London Road‘ is a one-of-a-kind movie musical and despite budget limitations and a miscast Tom Hardy (who is good, I must emphasis) it leaves a powerful emotional impact as it focuses on the ordinary people left behind after a game-changing local event. Its disconnect between contemporary communication and the average life is palpable and its energy and musical compositions make for some catchy and unique songs, especially when you take into consideration that every single word came from one of Alecky Blythe’s forward-thinking interviews. It’s enjoyable while watching due to its musical format, but afterwards it subconsciously bites into you emotionally. A stand-out U.K. film in a very competitive year.
I give ‘London Road‘ 4 stars out of 5.
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Posted: 25th Oct 15