Combining a theatrical background (adapted from the National Theatre production), musical elements, film and reportage (the script is based on interviews and news reports) – ‘London Road’ is an extraordinary British film. It is quite frankly a miracle that such an unusual film has been made at all.
The film is based on real-life events in Ipswich in 2006 when a serial killer targeted prostitutes – killing five in total. The “dialogue” here is largely based on interviews with the residents of London Road, which is where the prostitutes worked and where the killer was based.
The cast is surely the main reason why this film could have been made at all – it stars Olivia Colman as one of the residents and Tom Hardy, of all people, in a cameo as a sinister taxi driver, which has echoes of his role in ‘Locke’. However, it is the ensemble as a whole which makes the film a success; they work as a Greek chorus, commenting on the events around them.
‘London Road’ is a musical, and this is hard to explain unless you actually watch it; the effect is so subtle, it takes a while to even realise that it is indeed a musical. The film begins with the residents watching television news reports of the grim events unfolding and you realise that the reporters are speaking in an unnatural, rhythmical way. They then start to repeat, overlap and overlay their words until they are singing as a harmonious chorus. This almost hypnotic effect is carried on to incredibly complex crowd scenes – in a market, on a bus, in a community centre, outside the courthouse – where the setting is completely naturalistic (the costumes and production design are incredibly cleverly done), but large scale musical numbers are being performed which are even reminiscent of ‘Les Miserables’ at times.
The fear among the female citizens of the town and the suspicion upon the male citizens is effectively built up at the start. A highlight is a scene on the top deck of a bus, where everyone is female (all with hints of pink in their costumes), apart from a lone Asian male at the front of the deck. The claustrophobia and paranoia is heightened by the singing and subtle movements (there is no actual dancing in the film) of the ensemble. Many scenes start off with a line being spoken naturalistically, often in an interview scenario. However, this same line will be repeated by other residents and it is the multi-layered effect and building up of the words that really focuses the viewer on what is being said or sung.
Once the suspect is arrested on London Road itself, the dramatic circus of these real-life events becomes clear. The residents are watching scenes on their TV screens of events going on directly outside their net curtains; they are under the constant scrutiny of police and TV cameras; some of the residents (like the kids craning to see inside the killer’s house) are even starting to enjoy the attention and the fact that something so exciting is happening in Ipswich.
It is only towards the end of the film that the prostitutes themselves are finally given a voice, and they speak of being given some help to get off the streets and get clean, as a result of the murders. The residents, too, have bonded as a community and are having bingo nights, fish and chip suppers and a “Britain in Bloom” contest. You could argue that London Road is better off for having been the scene of horrific crimes, which raises some interesting moral questions. The victims are barely referenced at all – this film very much focuses on the after-effects of the murders. However, you don’t see the killer either – there can be no accusations of any glamorisation of violence similar to ‘The Fall’.
The film also wryly analyses the role of the news reporters – desperately trying to convey complex scientific and technical information within pithy soundbites (again brilliantly communicated through song) or frantically waiting for the verdict to come in, so they can be the first to spit the words down the camera. The courthouse scenes show barely concealed violence and aggression spilling out – from those desperately trying to get a glimpse of the killer or the reporters jostling for position – so much so that we question the real difference between spectator and offender.
This recent real-life news story could have so easily been forgotten in our 24-hour news cycle, where we, as viewers, get fatigued so quickly and easily. The fact that this story will live on through being communicated in such a unique way is amazing, and the filmmakers have told this story with ingenious creativity. If you would like a thought-provoking, challenging and wondrous couple of hours – check out ‘London Road’ on DVD – you will not regret it.
Cast: Olivia Colman, Tomy Hardy, Clare Burt, Rosalie Craig, Nick Holder, Anita Dobson