As a prospect for an evening at the movies director Rufus Norris and writer Alecky Blythe’s film London Road is (at least superficially) about as hard a sell as is imaginable.
Beginning around Christmas 2006, the film looks at the effect of a series of murders and the media furore they provoke upon a working class community in Ipswich. When the film begins, the city is now in a state of near lockdown as the killer is at large. The victims were prostitutes who had been plying their trade around a residential street called London Road to the widespread dismay of those dwelling there. The subsequent arrest of a suspect from the street brings a major police investigation and an unprecedented level of press attention.
London Road’s subject is community, and what that notion means in contemporary Britain. At the start of the film the community is seen existing in a half life behind twitching curtains, separated and isolated. When they awake to blue flashing lights and find the street cobwebbed with police incident tape the community at first withdraws even further behind front doors. When the investigation moves on and media attention turns to the ensuing court case the community begins to cohere like red blood cells fighting an infection. A residents committee forms, coffee mornings are held, the dilapidated street blooms with hanging baskets as the remaining residents attempt to heal and rebuild. But there is a dark shadow, the surviving prostitutes are forced out of the area and are not invited to partake in this healing. Their lingering presence on the fringes of the area is unwelcome and unwanted.
London Road is a film that asks hard questions about where we are as a society, about our attitudes to social deprivation, addiction, the media, the breakdown of traditional communities, and how we communally choose to ignore the needy. It is a film that begins in harsh monochrome, courtesy of cinematographer Danny Cohen and a very extreme grade. The cast plays against a background of pebble dashed masonry, peeling wallpaper and DFS furniture. The temptation is to label it blight, but the truth is I’ve lived on streets just like this and you probably have also.
A grim slice of kitchen sink miserabalism then? Well no actually. In fact not at all. London Road is exhilarating and one of the most unique and innovative films of this year. Based on a National Theatre production also directed by Norris (who is now the NT’s Artistic Director), this threatening material is startlingly presented as a musical.
Blythe is a playwright as well as a screenwriter and her method is close to documentary. London Road’s script was formed from a series of taped interviews with the real residents of London Road, and their words are preserved and represented as close as possible to what was actually said, including the um’s, ah’s, pauses, non sequiturs and repetitions of everyday speech. This has been taken by composer Adam Cork who pulls out phrases and layers them creating hypnotic patterns and rhythms.
This sounds on paper like a classic [cough] Brechtian Alienation Device, something so deliberately theatrical that it enforces a sense of artifice and distancing. In fact it has entirely the opposite effect, the repetition of language allows ideas and notions to permeate the viewer. A script being sung should be anti-naturalism, but this is negated by the realism of the dialogue and performances (all of which are outstanding). The sheer joy of the BBC Philharmonic’s playing coupled with the precise choreography by Venezuelan dancer Javier de Frutos allows for a way into this bleak story. If presented as a more traditional docudrama it would likely be suffocatingly difficult watch.
The film features significant parts for actors such as Olivia Colman, Anita Dobson, and Tom Hardy (in a brief but memorable appearance as a serial killer obsessed cab driver). Nonetheless, this is very much an ensemble piece. Having said that I simply have to pull out Eloise Lawrence (from Norris’ previous film Broken) and Meg Suddaby, who play two giggling schoolgirls performing an EDM tinged number ‘It could be him’ in which they wander the Ipswich’s shopping centre giggling and casually speculating over how every passing man could be the killer.
One of the most compelling aspects of the film is realised in a way that is initially troubling. That is the way the prostitutes are portrayed. Some very unpleasant things are said about them (one section of dialogue is among my most shocking movie moments of the year) yet they are an almost ghostly presence. It becomes ever more noticeable that they do not possess a voice in the film… until, in a scene that is heartbreaking and depressing in equal parts, they very much do.
It must be pointed out that London Road is also very funny. Sometimes the humour is the gallows variety, but there is also genuine warmth (particularly from former Eastender’s star Dobson). Some have observed in the film a rising note of redemption and healing. I have to admit, that I did not, but the work has nuance and is open to multiple interpretations. In the end, I found the film deeply haunting but despite the nakedness and sometimes ugly emotions on display, I never found it exploitative.
London Road is a unique film. I can’t think of anything like it. While it is difficult to imagine this being a hefty box office hit it is so unusual that who knows? Also it also has the possibility of attracting a National Theatre audience that is arguably already keeping many independent cinemas afloat. Whether London Road makes money or not, this is precisely the sort of film the British industry should be making in 2015.