With stage-to-screen adaptations, much of the immediacy and vitality of the original production can so be easily lost in translation. Not so with London Road, which makes its way to the big screen via critically acclaimed runs at London’s Cottsloe and Olivier theatres and loses absolutely none of its impact in the process.
Taking a remarkable approach to a real-life tragedy, the film’s focus is the titular Ipswich street that became the hunting ground for serial killer Steve Wright in 2006. In the aftermath of the murders of five local prostitutes, writer Alecky Blythe interviewed the road’s residents about their experience and, together with Adam Cork, turned the resulting verbatim dialogue – hesitation, repetition and all – into an astonishingly effective musical screenplay.
Far from being a gimmick, this method of storytelling feels entirely fitting for the deep-rooted social issues being explored. Rather than simply bursting into life, the songs emerge from everyday speech and, in great musical tradition, expose the truest feelings of its characters. Initially composed of the staccato beats of paranoia, suspicion and fear, as the community is gradually brought together the soundtrack of their lives swells to relief, redemption and pride. The music also effectively conveys the pressures of living under such relentless public scrutiny, with sequences such as the descending of the media circus and the braying mob outside the courtroom highlighting the brutal power of human behaviour on both sides of the police tape.
The exceptional work of Blythe, Cork and the play’s original director Rufus Norris is expertly supported by cinematographer Danny Cohen, editor John Wilson and choreographer Javier de Frutos, whose respective framing, cuts and movements replicate the natural rhythm of speech that so beautifully informs the musical numbers. In turn, the exceptional cast handle both the controversial subject matter and its extraordinary delivery with naturalistic flair, Olivia Colman being a particular standout as Julie, a woman whose growing sense of community is born as much out of shared prejudice as local pride. And while Tom Hardy’s star billing translates to nothing more than a cameo, his turn as an uncomfortably shifty cab driver is no less memorable for its brevity.
This overall sense of integrity extends to the film’s compassionate treatment of the prostitutes themselves. Though they remain predominantly silent figures, standing alone in the shadows, their heartbreaking plight is obvious. When they are finally given voice with the heartbreaking ‘We’ve All Stopped’, in which they recount how they still struggling with the addictions that drove them to the streets, it comes as a gut-wrenching reminder of their ongoing fight for survival.
The stark uncertainty of their fate is further compounded by the effective use of snippets from Blythe’s original interviews over the end credits; that this directly precedes a reprise of the resident’s rousing ode to their petunias is an eloquent precis of the film’s dichotomous power to celebrate the healing power of community spirit and expose the ‘not in my backyard’ prejudices that often lie behind such action.(‘I’d shake his hand,’ Julie bluntly admits of her feelings towards Wright, ‘for getting rid of the problem’.)
Above all, however, London Road is a bold, inspired and entirely unique piece of British cinema at its finest; exactly the type of filmmaking we should be encouraging, supporting and helping to find the wide audience it deserves.
UK Release: June 12, 2015
An edited version of this review was originally published at The List.