Adapted from an unorthodox stage musical that opened to rave reviews at London’s National Theatre in 2011, London Road examines the shockwaves that shook the English backwater town of Ipswich in 2006, when serial killer Steve Wright murdered five prostitutes over a six-week period. Sensational media stories dubbed Wright “The Ipswich Ripper” and “The Suffolk Strangler”, but Alecky Blythe’s play is less focused on the killer and his gory misdeeds than on the ripple effect they had on his traumatized suburban neighbors.
Rufus Norris, who recently replaced Nicholas Hytner as artistic director of the National Theatre, returns to direct this finely crafted and mostly faithful screen adaptation for BBC Films. Norris reunites most of the original ensemble cast with a handful of commercially savvy additions, notably Mad Max star Tom Hardy. Opening in U.K. cinemas this week, London Road is an exotic docudrama hybrid whose mannered style and localized subject may translate to limited interest outside Britain. That said, Hardy’s box-office clout should help lure the wider audience that this compelling and original production deserves.
There goes the neighborhood
The script to London Road was assembled entirely from Blythe’s interviews with Ipswich residents, police, media and sex workers. Some were conducted before Wright’s arrest in late 2006, others in the buildup to his guilty verdict in 2008. Blythe uses an unusually forensic method, quoting interviewees verbatim, reproducing all their repetitions and hesitations, verbal tics and grammatical errors.
Adam Cork’s chamber-orchestra score is equally precise, mimicking the meter and pitch of each speech snippet, transforming ultra-naturalistic dialogue into hypnotic loops and syncopated refrains. The result is an arrestingly vivid fusion of music and text that owes more to the modernist oratorios of Steve Reich than the Broadway showtunes of Stephen Sondheim.
Rising British screen star Olivia Colman (Broadchurch) joins the cast as Julie, a proud London Road resident who fights to save her neighborhood’s tainted reputation following the murders. Colman’s vocal delivery is quickfire and nervy, perfectly matched by Cork’s staccato score. Meanwhile, Hardy radiates quiet menace as a shifty, unshaven taxi driver with a suspiciously deep grasp of serial killer psychology. Norris teases us with hints that Hardy’s Travis Bickle-like figure may prove to be the murderer. Other male characters get the same uneasy, paranoid treatment. No spoilers here.
In its stylized depiction of mostly working-class and marginalized characters, London Road risks striking a tone of condescending metropolitan voyeurism at times. While the text carefully balances the sensitivities of residents and sex workers alike, some of the quotes ambush us with their casual brutality: “I feel sorry for the families, not them,” says one. “I’d like to just shake his hand and say thanks very much for getting rid of them,” adds another. Callous lines delivered in a breezy, matter-of-fact manner. Blythe and Norris do not overtly editorialize here, but their interviewees include a trio of prostitutes, who are portrayed with dignity and compassion.
The film’s main location is a real residential street in the South London suburbs, which doubles as Ipswich. Straight-to-camera interview is the default stylistic device, but Norris and choreographer Javier De Frutos also open out the action to include elegantly staged dance numbers in shopping malls, courthouses and community halls. There are pleasing echoes here of the late French director Jacques Demy’s gloriously whimsical sung-through musicals, notably The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Cinematographer Danny Cohen also uses color for dramatic effect, muted and wintry during the murder spree, then more vibrant and summery as the community recovers.
As gripping onscreen as it was onstage, London Road remains a work of great finesse and originality. The one slightly jarring note is Hardy’s stunt casting in a single-scene cameo, which sits awkwardly in the ensemble format of recurring characters and choral motifs. Hardy is a magnetic presence even in this small vignette, but he was clearly hired for his marquee appeal rather than his singing skills.
Production companies: BBC Films, Cuba Pictures
Cast: Tom Hardy, Olivia Colman, Paul Thornley, Nick Holder, Anita Dobson, Linzi Hateley, Nicola Sloane, Duncan Wisbey, Clare Burt
Director: Rufus Norris
Writer: Alecky Blythe
Composer: Adam Cork
Cinematographer: Danny Cohen
Editor: John Wilson
Producer: Dixie Linder
Script consultant: Moira Buffini
Choreographer: Javier De Frutos
Rated 15 (U.K.), 91 minutes