Magazine article Variety

London Road

Magazine article Variety

London Road

Article excerpt

DIRECTOR: Rufus Norris

STARRING: Olivia Colman, Paul Thornley, Nick Holder

Everybody's very, very nervous," runs the most memorable lyrical refrain in "London Road," and one imagines the filmmakers found themselves singing it often. An avant-garde musical based on the recorded testimonies of concerned residents following the Ipswich serial murders of 2006, Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork's unique piece was a bold enough proposition for the U.K.'s National Theatre a few years ago, let alone for the bigscreen. Yet while Rufus Norris' stage production was an unlikely triumph, its film adaptation - in the same helmer's hands - emerges as something of a curate's egg. Though performed with stalwart conviction by an ensemble including Olivia Colman and Tom Hardy, Blythe's much-celebrated verbatim technique translates in surprisingly mannered fashion to camera, while Norris' season-based visual treatment of the material cloys. Commercial appeal beyond Blighty is limited; even at home, this may prove a "Road" less traveled.

Local auds, at least, won't require much factual context for the proceedings: Routinely compared to the infamous Yorkshire Ripper case of the 1970s, the Ipswich murders stand among the most headline-hogging British criminal stories of the past decade. Forklift driver Steve Wright - dubbed the Suffolk Strangler by the press - killed five women in a six-week period between October and December 2006, preying on young prostitutes who plied their trade near his home on the eponymous workingclass road in the Suffolk County town of Ipswich. Though the real-life case was widely panic-inducing, and prompted heated media debate over the country's anti-prostitution laws, Blythe and Cork's legit production was preoccupied less with the case's national resonance than with the trauma it caused closer to home - specifically, among Wright's own stunned, unsuspecting neighbors on London Road.

A playwright dedicated to the documentary-style practice of verbatim theater, Blythe visited Ipswich in the weeks before Wright's arrest to interview residents, returning at different stages of the trial to monitor and record the shifting mood of the community. Though the musical book she built from these recordings with composer Cork has been substantially restructured for the screen, zeroing in on key personalities from the stage production's collection of 70-odd characters, the integrity of Blythe's method has been retained in her screenplay: All the dialogue stems from the interviews, albeit set to a lilting choric meter that identifies lyricism in lines as banal as, "I've got 17 hanging baskets in my back garden."

In an artificial stage environment, the technique might conjure a kind of poignant naturalism; onscreen, it has a markedly different, distancing effect. The contrivance of the sung delivery is more prominent, at odds with the authenticity of the word.s themselves. The film guardedly segues from spokenword realism to sung numbers and back, assisted by the deliberately unrefined "verbatim dancing" of original stage choreographer Javier De Frutos, though the contrast between the musical and nonmusical sequences creates two distractingly dissonant planes of reality.

Anchoring this unsteadily ambitious enterprise, fortunately, is reliable and empathie screen presence Colman, as earnestly community-minded single mother Julie - selected by Blythe (with script guidance from Moira Buffini) as the fastening character and irregular narrator of the film version. Julie's fretful concerns about Wright (a relative newcomer to London Road at the time of the murders) are largely echoed by her fellow residents. …

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