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On 'London Road,' Murder, Music And British Lower-Middle-Class Manners

Julia (Olivia Colman, center left) and June (Anita Dobson, center right) in the musical <em>London Road</em>.
Nicola Dove
Nicola Dove
Julia (Olivia Colman, center left) and June (Anita Dobson, center right) in the musical London Road.

London Road is not the first musical to be made about a real-life serial killer. But it may be the first to draw its poetic life-blood from the testimony of residents of a rural English town where five prostitutes were found murdered in 2006. Aside from a wicked moment or two when a leering movie star known for playing unsavory fellows shows up to throw us off the scent, this is not about the murderer. It's about the undoing — and remaking — of a community in its own words, owing more to Shirley Jackson than Masterpiece Theater.

As it happens, the film was worked up from a National Theater workshop that grew into a hit stage play. This is not Shakespeare or Sheridan though, nor is it one of those lofty-lefty bits by West End playwrights with their gun sights fixed on the ruling class. London Road beams its sympathy, as well as an irreverent eye, on one lower-middle-class street in Ipswich, Suffolk, whose residents have long resented the sex workers plying their trade under the noses of the righteous and respectable. It helps to know going in that the cultural gulf between the British lower-middle and working class is wide and deep, in no small measure because only a smidgen of bad luck separates the one from the other.

When the five women are found dead and the chief suspect — a transient truck driver dubbed the Ipswich Ripper — is arrested in a neglected house on the same street, London Road quickly becomes the focus of a media circus, followed by painful introspection within the community about its own claims to good character. All the residents are played by actors, one or two of whom you'll be able to name. Every line they utter — the script is by Alecky Blythe, who specializes in "verbatim theatre," a la Anna Deavere Smith — is taken from recorded interviews. So there's a documentary impulse at work here that's integral to British realism. But London Road is an entirely different animal from any film by Mike Leigh or Ken Loach or Stephen Frears.

Based on the play by director Rufus Norris (Broken), London Road fairly bristles with visible technique. This is because it's a famously hellish prospect to adapt a stage play for the screen: You have to get the action out of the house, and you have to put a stop to all that declaiming. As with other filmed versions of National Theater productions that have brought the best of British theater to North America, a swooping, restless camera follows the players around their hitherto obscure town as they wring their hands about the identity of their resident serial killer. Paranoia blooms, and suspects appear in sinister close-ups that make you wonder not simply who the perp might be, but who the women's regular customers were.

Once you get used to the film's most potent strategy — the incantatory repetition of dialogue in song and sing-song — it takes on the cadence of hypnotic poetry, a Greek chorus that picks out a billowing unease that only begins to spread following a trial verdict that was meant to bring closure. Yes, London Road will spruce itself up with a riot of color in hanging baskets and bunting and block parties and doors thrown open to neighbors. Yes, there will be jubilant togetherness — for everyone but the now under-employed prostitutes, who sound a desolate, lonely voice from the gasworks at the end of the street.

At the climax, London Road administers a well-aimed kick to complacent liberalism when the heroic organizer of the community's rebirth, a single parent named Julie played by Olivia Colman, delivers a frank opinion about the streetwalkers' fate, while her teenaged daughter squirms on the couch beside her. As Shirley Jackson so well understood in her masterpiece, The Lottery, no community coheres without its sacrificial lamb.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ella Taylor is a freelance film critic, book reviewer and feature writer living in Los Angeles.