London Road is a bizarre formal experiment, thoroughly testing the boundaries of the screen musical. For some, this may well be enough to warrant a viewing. As someone who’s never quite been able to get on board with the genre as a whole, this film’s experimentation fails to deliver much more than an odd novelty, a contrived conflation of ripped-from-the-headlines realism and the surrealistic magical thinking inherent to a world in which people burst spontaneously into song. The result is a confused conglomeration that’s certainly strange enough to prompt interest — but not cohesive or coherent enough to maintain it.
Based on the 2011 musical staged by the National Theater in London, which was itself based on a series of murders carried out in Ipswich in 2006, London Road derives its libretto’s verbatim dialogue from contemporaneous interviews with the townspeople affected by the killings. While this premise is unquestionably intriguing, the naturalism of the vernacular is too often at odds with the fact that these lines are sung rather than spoken, and the deliberately unpolished choreography undermines the script’s attempts to provide genuine insight into the psychological fallout of a small town seized by paranoia. In short, the gimmicks that might’ve proven effective on stage become jarring and distracting when translated to the screen.
All of this is not to say the narrative is ill-conceived — in fact, it’s pretty compelling. But ultimately the story feels underserved by its musical treatment, and I found myself frequently wishing the songs would get out of the way of the script. Rather than focusing on the murder of five prostitutes by the so-called “Ipswich Ripper,” the narrative hinges on the town’s reaction to these slayings as recorded firsthand by Alecky Blythe, who wrote both the film and stage versions of London Road. The emotional stakes are evident as the townsfolk adapt to the terror of a killer in their midst, the scrutiny of their community by the police and media, and the difficulties of rebuilding social bonds in the wake of the killer’s apprehension and prosecution. What is less clear than the narrative’s focus is its point, frequently lost as the film finds new excuses for its cast to belt out tunes substantially less catchy than those found in more traditional musicals. If a chorus is intended to reprise a musical idea, here the endless repetition of colloquial verse fails to reinforce sonority and becomes merely monotonous.
The cast comport themselves admirably, with Olivia Colman reinforcing my opinion that she’s solidly among the best English actresses working today. Tom Hardy is a standout as well, with a singing voice that is not at all what I expected. However, those convinced by the film’s promotional materials that Hardy would feature prominently will be disappointed, as he features in exactly one sequence (as a cab driver with a suspicious interest in serial killers). His brief time on-screen is fun, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit shortchanged.
Blythe and director Rufus Norris, who also helmed the stage production, seem too attached to their original work to genuinely adapt it, delivering a finished product that plays as though transposed from the stage to real-world settings rather than as a fully formed film in its own right. Norris’ mastery of the cinematic tools at his disposal is limited at best, and Blythe’s script is too preoccupied with its musical numbers to give much consideration to story or characterization. In terms of sheer inventiveness, London Road is laudable, but its vehement adherence to its source material constitutes a near-fatal flaw. If nothing else, I have to commend this film for being unlike anything I’ve seen before. Beyond that, there’s not much I can say in its defense. Not Rated.
Opens Friday at Grail Moviehouse