September 10, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto Film Festival Review: “London Road”


LONDON ROAD may have seemed marginally less odd as the stage musical it originally was.  No matter how naturalistic a play may be, the mechanics of theatre make it somewhat stylized, and that may have brought the show’s conceits to life when it was staged by England’s National Theatre company.  But as a film directed by Rufus Norris (who also directed the stage version), the overall strangeness dominates the content and the precision of the production.

In this post-Sweeney Todd age, the fact that London Road is concerned with the effect on the small town of Ipswich of a serial killing spree that killed 5 prostitutes over 6 weeks isn’t itself remarkable.  Road, though, was put together in a unique, indeed experimental way:  transcripts of the interviews conducted with Ipswich residents by playwright Alecky Blythe were turned, verbatim, into the lyrics of the songs–“verbatim” in this case meaning that their use is inclusive of pauses, exclamations, “uhh”s and similar artifacts of spoken speech.  Working with composer/co-lyricist Adam Cork, Blythe set these lines to music, although very often the songs consist of repeating the same few sentences over and over.  Naturally these interviews were never intended by the speakers to be set to music, and they emerge more as chants than conventional “songs,” without any of the plot or character development we’ve taken for granted from musical theatre numbers since Oklahoma.  The singers, too, are either untrained or instructed to sound that way–not off-key, but not polished in the way we expect professional performers to be.  (Tom Hardy rather bewilderingly turns up for a one-song cameo that feels like a favor he was doing for someone.)

Norris, for his part, has shot the film mostly lin the conventional style of an indie drama (even the choreography mostly consists of people shuffling around).  There are times when one can recognize visual motifs that might have been used on stage in a powerful manner, for example the maze-like tangle of police scene tape set up outside the house of the leading suspect (who never appears on screen), but in the film the tapes just seem weird.

The tone of it all is also wobbly.  There are sections of the “story” that seem to be in support of the townspeople’s ability to rise above the tragedy that’s beset their town, showing compassion for their fear before the culprit is caught and their determination afterward.  But repeated appearances by surviving prostitutes (especially near the end, as a counterpoint to a gardening competition going on in the town), as well as a particularly ugly set of statements made by one neighbor (played by Olivia Colman, in a role not totally unlike her breakout part in Broadchurch) about the murders–words that Blythe, Cork and Norris don’t dare set to music–suggest that a darker view of their British village may be intended.  However, if the idea was to be Brechtian and aim for an alienation affect, that also doesn’t succeed.  Satiric beats about local reporters have no pay-off, and there’s little indication of a larger social point.

London Road is certainly at home in a film festival setting, but it’s never more than a curiosity.  “Reality” (however staged) may work for the Real Housewives and the Kardashians, but it’s not the stuff of which musicals are built.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."