Rufus Norris’ film isn’t the first musical about a serial killer—one need only think of “Sweeney Todd,” or the recent Broadway take on “American Psycho”—but it’s one of the most peculiar. “London Road” derives from a 2011 National Theatre production based on interviews conducted with residents of the titular neighborhood in Ipswich, England, about the impact that the murders of five prostitutes had on the small community in 2006. Their words (along with those from contemporary news reports) are conflated into a bizarre montage in which spoken dialogue acts as a sort of running recitative that occasionally breaks into sung solos and ensembles—the work of Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork. The result is an undoubted oddity that some will find penetrating and others irritating.
One can imagine why on the stage this amalgam of carefully selected real-life transcriptions and rhythmic beats reminiscent of minimalist scores was so rapturously received. Played on stylized sets, it could take on an insistent, universal aspect, and since some of the material was quite provocative—one resident observed that the killer had actually done the neighborhood a favor by ridding it of sex workers, and the ultimate response was to transform the community’s image by undertaking a local gardening program, complete with a catchy slogan—it raised substantive issues about pervasive societal attitudes.
On screen, however, the realistic locations (the film was shot in a London neighborhood) brings the conceit down to earth, as it were, and it becomes less a rumination on the human condition than an almost condescendingly voyeuristic little sociological exercise. That feeling is accentuated by the visuals, which call too much attention to themselves. Especially in the film’s first half (before the arrest and trial of the “Suffolk Stranger” or “Ipswich Ripper,” as the tabloidy press referred to him), the elegance of DP Danny Cohen’s swift camera moves, combined with the hyperkinetic editing of John Wilson, makes for a thoroughly calculated look that detracts from the desired effect rather than enhancing it.
And while things become more sedate in the second half, the overall show-offy character of the result reflects the very theatrical perspective of director Rufus Norris, who appears to want the film to serve as a sort of personal audition reel. That makes it an exhausting viewing experience. Norris also elects to strew red herrings about as to the killer’s identity. Tom Hardy, for example, appears in a small part as a taxi driver who’s nervous about being watched with concern even by his passengers. Even more distracting are the regular cuts to a scruffy fellow in a plaid jacket who comes across as extremely suspicious. Yet in the end the picture isn’t really concerned about the identity of the killer at all; it’s the reaction of the neighborhood residents to his crimes that’s the subject here, and that emphasis is skewed by what proves to be nothing more than extraneous misdirection. (A subsidiary plot thread satirizing publicity-seeking journalists is, moreover, merely obvious.)
Nonetheless one must note the stellar contributions of the cast, who put across their numbers—some energetic ensembles, others quiet solos—with the authority of practiced stage performers (as many of them undoubtedly are). Their contributions are anchored by Olivia Colman (who starred, with David Tennant, in the BBC’s exceptional crime series “Broadchurch”) as Julie, the woman who takes matters in hand when the killing spree tarnishes London Road’s reputation, organizing the communal gardening effort, which finds even the unlikeliest residents sprucing up their yards. Her effort, which seems admirable despite some stray comments to interviewers that might give one pause, concludes in a great block party that signals the dawn of a new era for the neighborhood—or is it a job of whitewashing?
“London Road” is certainly different—indeed, ostentatiously so. It’s the ostentation that’s the problem. The hectoring cinematic presentation weakens what is actually an intriguing idea, one that probably worked better on the stage.