It can’t be the easiest way to write. Go out, find people who’ve been through something bad, interview them and then spend months working the material into a script. In the case of London Road, it may have been worth it, as first a hit stage musical and then a movie came out of it.
The script explores the grim impact of a serial killer, the so called Suffolk Strangler, on a county town in England. In 2008 Stephen Wright, a 48-year-old forklift truck driver, was found guilty of murdering five prostitutes in Ipswich. The film London Road, named after the street in which Wright lived, takes a look at the lives of people from that stretch of brick and tarmac.
We never see the Strangler, but we do begin boldly. The camera sweeps and circles between the terraced houses and into the rooms the characters inhabit. This dancing style is repeated in a bravura scene where shoppers, who look like nothing so much as zombies, sidestep, shuffle and stare at each other in a staccato ballet of distrust and suspicion. It’s a nice twist on a song and dance number, and it’s creepy and affecting in equal measure.
The shuffling and staring ends and one of the ‘zombies’ morphs into a ‘normal’ middle-aged woman who takes a short taxi ride home. But there’s no escape: the paranoia cranks up with Tom Hardy’s rape-and-murder-fascinated driver.
Here, as throughout, the only words we hear are those spoken by people who lived or worked on London Road. They come from interviews done by writer Alecky Blythe, a playwright known for verbatim theatre.
Verbatim theatre sounds complex. It involves actors listening to and studying recorded interviews. They then attempt to copy what’s been said exactly, in the same intonations and with the same verbal tics such as stutters and repetition. This is filtered through the process of shaping the script, which is then given to the ‘real people’ for their feedback.
The technique is well suited to documentaries and to the stage, and these are areas where Blythe has made her name. In the movie, there’s an obvious tension between the ‘low’ tone of the recorded speech and the ‘high’ format of a musical production. Director Rufus Norris handles this well and the flat, monotonic score works with the script to create a real sense of drabness.
There’s also a stench of powerlessness and of fear. And it is this that is the real subject. People in London Road were under siege before the murders, after Ipswich’s red light district had spread into their area. The murders then caught the media’s attention and the street became host to swarms of reporters, TV camera crews and the usual hangers on. There were policeman too – and Alecky Blythe, of course.
Where there’s fear, there’s often resentment. Some of the characters are grimly unlikeable, showing for example a petty vindictiveness about the murder victims. But this is never really followed up. As a result, the film sometimes veers towards what you might call a slyness of observation. It’s as if the producers say: ‘we don’t really approve of this but we’re going to show you what these people are like’! It’s an occasionally jarring note.
The verbatim technique may be to blame. It works in driving the songs and the mood of the film, but the dialogue is broken up and repetitive. This is what things are like in real life, of course, but in a production I imagine it puts a lot of stress on the actors’ skills. Some of the characters don’t feel as if they’re fully developed. The workshop approach, which includes interviewees in developing the script, might have held this process back.
The episodic and multipronged structure doesn’t help, either. Characters come and go, with no backstories. Olivia Colman’s single mum Julie and Paul Thornley’s Dodge are given more to work with, and it is Coleman, a terrific and sensitive actor, who haunts the memory.
Musicals often end on a note of uplift, and, perhaps to its detriment, London Road doesn’t stray from the format. With the Strangler locked up, the community has a chance to reclaim their street. This is made clear in a scene in which the sun breaks out of what had been a grey sky and awards are given for newly revamped gardens at a street party.
The street party did happen and it might have worked in the stage play, but here it feels odd. Even the prostitutes seem to have a new sense of purpose. They talk of wanting new lives, of moving on, while balloons float up and away from the street party into the blue sky. I hope that at least some of them succeeded in putting things behind them, but it seems a little overdone given the context of the rest of the movie.
London Road is a brave and bold piece of cinema. It’s gripping and its portrayal of the realities and resentments of an unlovely town in England are recognisable. Fuller characters would have made it more convincing, but this is a movie that aims to show and succeeds in showing what jarred nerves can do to people.