Mark Reviews Movies

London Road


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Rufus Norris

Cast: Olivia Colman, Clare Burt, Rosalie Craig, Anita Dobson, James Doherty, Kate Fleetwood, Hal Fowler, Linzi Hateley, Paul Hilton, Nick Holder, Claire Moore, Michael Shaeffer, Nicola Sloane, Paul Thornley, Howard Ward, Duncan Wisbey, Tom Hardy

MPAA Rating: Not rated

Running Time: 1:31

Release Date: 9/9/16 (limited); 9/16/16 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 15, 2016

"This is exactly what they said," promises the opening text of London Road, a film based on a stage play with a script assembled from interviews over a period of three years. The interviews were with locals who lived on a block on the eponymous street in Ipswich, a town in the county of Suffolk in England. Over the course of just 10 days near the end of 2006, the bodies of five women were discovered in areas surrounding the town. All of them had been murdered. All five worked as prostitutes. At this point, it should be noted that both the play and this film are musicals.

That might make the film sound flippant about or even disrespectful of the subject matter at hand, but that resulting approach is somewhat the point. The film isn't about the murders themselves, perpetrated during the period of a little more than a month by one man who lived on the block in question. It's about the way that people respond to such horror. Sometimes, people respond in a way that's respectful and solemn—what we would call the "appropriate" reaction. It would be dishonest, though, to say that such a response is always the case.

The murders became national news, and the fact that the killer lived on this street put his neighbors in the spotlight. Those are the people from whom we hear in the film. There are no names given, except the killer's and the victims' (the latter during a haunting choral piece as the camera moves through the killer's home). That's for good reason.

There's a feeling that these people are oddly disconnected from basic human empathy. There are an assortment of possibilities for this. They might have felt overwhelmed by the sheer awfulness of the situation—that a man so physically close to them could be responsible for these crimes (They point out that he was only there for three months as a way to say he really wasn't one of them). They might have been distracted by the strange presence in their midst of the playwright Alecky Blythe (who also wrote the screenplay), who interviewed the residents, wanting to hear their thoughts and feelings on the crimes, as well as the impact the murders had on them and their neighborhood.

Of course, the simplest reason might be the most likely answer: They simply didn't care about the murders of five women as much as they did about the way those killings would reflect on them and the place where they live. Before the killer is arrested and charged, this cast of characters—again, based on real people—mostly say—again, in their own words—that those "poor girls" were tarnishing the reputation of their neighborhood.

Yes, it's terrible that the women were murdered, they sing in a reflexive manner. Maybe now, though, they won't have to worry about prostitutes hanging around their block. Let's call the attitude one of polite callousness.

What we have here is a pretty damning sociological study that happens to be set to music. It doesn't take long for the film to break into song. Reports about the discovery of two bodies are accompanied by a tune that sounds like the staccato music on a television broadcast that announces breaking news. The film boasts that these are the exact words of the participants, and it also backs up that boast. One senses the legitimacy of the words immediately. Nothing rhymes, and the music clearly follows what's said, not vice versa.

It's even more pronounced away from the journalists (who come across as eager vultures happily feeding on misery), as the residents of the neighborhood start on their songs. The "lyrics" are arranged by Blythe and Adam Cork (who wrote the music) to maintain the cadence and particulars of everyday speech. "Uh"s, "um"s, "you know"s, chuckles, and pauses are frequent. The music's rhythm is akin to stammers.

Director Rufus Norris treats these songs as musical numbers, complete with choreography. The movements, though, are simple, routine things exaggerated into something akin to dancing: people in the town center looking suspiciously at their neighbors, women inspecting mannequins donning men's suits in the way they must look at every man who might be a murderer, police taping off the block into a maze, and reporters running into each other as some new development arises at the local courthouse.

The style is slightly off-putting at first, but once it becomes evident that Norris, Blythe, and Cork have not only a well-defined method but also a clear-cut purpose to the approach, that style becomes second nature. Every staged interaction between characters becomes a discussion of the only thing on these people's minds—the killings, stripped of any artificial chitchat that one would expect before getting to the topic. People take on the role of self-proclaimed experts in fields such as police investigation, court procedure, and serial murder. The actors here are too numerous to mention individually, but they all possess an appearance and way about them that are in line with this ordinary place.

That everyone here is ordinary and recognizable as such is what makes this so discomforting. The period of mourning these lives, taken so violently, is short-lived. Shock and guilt are quickly replaced with a need to return to happier times. Some of those whom Blythe interviewed were prostitutes who found themselves the subject of sudden sympathy, although whatever help they could have received from the government, the media, and the community never happened. Instead, the neighborhood turns to a beautification project that puts a floral sheen over the ugliness that has defined the town. In other words, it's probably better that London Road is a musical, or the cruel reality beneath the surface might have been too much to bear.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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