“It was a complete nightmare”
For anyone who believes cinema currently languishes in a rut of remakes, rehashes, sequels, and been-there-done-thats: you aren’t looking hard enough. Those works are what the media force-feeds because they’re the ones making big money come opening weekend, but there’s more out there if you’re willing. Some financiers like BBC Films still gravitate towards unique visions that may or may not end up successes but definitely will spark conversation and in turn possibly advance the medium into places it has yet seen. This is what I believe London Road does. It’s verbatim content is unusual and the way those words are for all intents and purposes remixed to accompany music can prove extremely odd, but you cannot deny the impact of what’s captured in the result.
A hit on the National Theatre stage in London, it was only a matter of time before jumping to film. Some things obviously had to be altered since writer Alecky Blythe (crafting her story from words that were literally spoken via interviews conducted in rural Ipswich with every “um,” “yeah,” and stutter intact), composer Adam Cork, and director Rufus Norris conceived the piece with actors playing multiple characters, but they’ve made due. Scenes have been cannibalized, new residents created, and venues changed, but the words remain the same. That’s the project’s key motivation: to tell this heartbreaking tale with as much veracity as humanly possible. Rather than watch static documentary interviews of monotone content, however, it’s been transformed into a musical with choruses, choreography, and rounds to boot.
The story concerns the murder of five prostitutes on and around the titular road. Residents addressed the problem before—trying to shame these girls away to stop their property value from plummeting—but only after the bodies began to be found did police and journalists start taking an interest. Those that stayed (and some who didn’t) were interviewed extensively by the news channels of course, yet Blythe went anyway to record their accounts and let them explain their community above any slights outsiders had commenced to sling their way. She talked to neighbors, children, and even some prostitutes who were spared to understand the circus on a human level removed from the sensationalist entertainment it became. She captures their fear and eventual drive to put it behind them.
My favorite song is “It Could Be Him”, told from the perspective of two girls laughing at the attention their town is receiving while the adults speak in hushed whispers. The way Blythe and Cook use their childish ticks as lyrics is just as brilliant as the visual movement from diner patrons to alley inhabitants glaring their way to force them into wondering which man is the culprit. It’s moments like this that London Road truly shines, those where there is no star to grab our attention above the subject of what’s going on. The way the town acts before a suspect is arrested is believable in its timid trepidation. How they transform in the aftermath to confident advocates taking back their street’s legacy is inspiring.
Some familiar faces are involved too, though. The most famous are Olivia Colman as Julie, a housewife turned community outreach pillar organizing a garden contest to purge the bad thoughts that boarded up house on the middle of their road conjured, and Tom Hardy as Mark, a cab driver with the creepiest monologue of all explaining to an unsuspecting fare that he studied serial killers as a teenager but of course didn’t become one. The former is ostensibly the lead, her position as the face of the community keeping the character front and center for the duration (a bit of insensitivity in her regard of the situation is utterly unforgettable). The latter serves as a glorified cameo, but his words help increase the sense of early dread nonetheless.
We get a bit of the communal outcry for justice, some red herrings courtesy of characters like the always shady Dodge (Paul Thornley), and a ton of good old fashioned British hospitality from community leader Ron (Nick Holder) and the many rallying around their homes. The entire original cast has come along despite Colman, Hardy, Anita Dobson‘s (as June) inclusion, so there’s definitely a palpable chemistry in the timing of Blythe’s words and Norris’ direction. It’s a rare thing to have the same people on-camera and behind the scenes of a film as was previously there on stage, but that’s one of the perks of having an organization like BBC ensuring a level of artistic integrity. You can sense the love that went into its making.
It surely won’t be to everyone’s tastes considering the music is hardly the type you could sing along to in the car on the way to work, but hopefully everyone who watches can appreciate the skill involved to pull something like this off. The fact Blythe could cull together a cohesive narrative from disparate interviews, repurposing lines from person to person for theatrical clarity, is an amazing feat itself. Each of these seemingly true-to-life characters are made infinitely more intriguing knowing their attitudes, emotions, and cadences are meticulously recreated and the story can’t help but stick with you from bleak beginning to hopeful end. It may be about murder on paper, but London Road ultimately proves a heartfelt look at a neighborhood coming together for a cathartic rebirth.