Olivia Colman stars in London Road, a musical about the murder of prostitutes in Ipswich.
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London Road is a musical about the Ipswich prostitute murders - and it's a triumph

In that grey area between documentary and fiction, the movie finds a new kind of truth.

Our cinemas have become impossibly crowded with new films—there are 12 out in this relatively light week, as well as a re-release of Marco Ferreri’s 1973 La Grande Bouffe. (It’s about four friends who eat themselves to death: is this a distributor’s idea of a swipe at the jam-packed release schedules?)

In that context, it is inevitable that some great cinema will be neglected. Though it was released three weeks ago, I only recently caught up with the film adaptation of the musical London Road, which was staged in 2011 at the National Theatre. I was sorry to have missed that original version—I came to the verbatim theatre work of its writer, Alecky Blythe, fairly late with Little Revolution, her play last year about the 2011 London riots. So I can’t comment on the transfer of London Road from one medium to another. The film, though, is nothing short of a triumph.

Blythe had visited Ipswich in 2006 during the investigation into the murders of five women there, and interviewed local residents about their reactions. From these tapes she assembled a piece of verbatim theatre, using only the exact words—every “um”, every “ah”, every repetition and stammer—that were spoken. The addition of a musical element, in which she and her co-writer Adam Cork transformed large sections of this script into song, makes the raw material feel elevated, at times even exalted.

Rufus Norris, who also directed the play, displays a steady hand and a feel for cinematic rhythm that was absent entirely from his previous and highly exploitative film, Broken. He stages shots and scenes with a directness that bulldozes any initial scepticism about whether a verbatim musical can come alive on screen. We detect the first hints of words married to music in the bouncing syllables of newsreaders reporting on the murders. Then a mother, Julie (Olivia Colman), sings the occasional line over her shoulder at us as she walks the streets from which the victims, all of whom worked as prostitutes in the area, were plucked.

The punchiest and most overwhelming musical numbers come back-to-back within the first third of the film. “Everyone is Very Nervous” takes place in the middle of a Christmas shopping spree presided over by an eerie plastic Santa, and hinges on a repeated “um” that you can feel in your chest like a jabbing, accusatory finger. “It Could Be Him”, sung in a kind of breathless gallop by two teenagers (including Eloise Laurence, who stood out in Broken) as they scan the city for the face of the killer, is as crisply choreographed and edited as any action sequence; the techno pulse that gradually emerges from the music is incongruous and urgent. That segues into a tentative song performed by a taxi driver (Tom Hardy) whose interest in the case tips further into the unsavoury with every protestation of innocence that he makes. Hardy, who has been directed to reach charmingly for notes outside his range, is at once comical, creepy and rather sad.

"Everyone is Very Nervous" from London Road.

If the overall effect suggests a Ken Loach remake of The Umbrellas of CherbourgLondon Road is closer in tone and character to Clio Barnard’s The Arbor, another film which explores fruitfully the dislocation between actors and the words emerging from their mouths. (Barnard’s picture, a portrait of the late playwright Andrea Dunbar, featured actors lip-synching to interviews with the real-life subjects.) In that grey area between documentary and fiction, the movie finds a new kind of truth.

Without departing from the words spoken, it uses the emphasis and enhancement available to the musical form to tease out slip-ups, malapropisms and subtle verbal betrayals. And visually it finds some beautiful rapprochements in some unexpected places (the glance exchanged near the end of the film between a prostitute and a young girl at a street party), and chilling ruptures in others (Colman’s final speech is particularly electrifying). The picture is still playing at a few venues, in scattered screening-times. It’s worth the trek to wherever you have to go to see it.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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John Darnielle's Universal Harvester contains as much tenderness as horror

The Mountain Goats musician's novel has some structural problems, but is not without interest and insight.

It is the late 1990s in the small city of Nevada, Iowa, and Jeremy is getting complaints about the tapes that people are renting from the Video Hut. Weird images are appearing partway through films: the sunny romcom She’s All That cuts suddenly to a shot of darkness and the sound of someone breathing behind the camera; the Peter Bogdanovich thriller Targets is interrupted by amateur footage of a woman tied to a chair inside a barn, with a hood over her head and a rope around her neck. These menacing images cause confusion. Are they a manufacturing error? A prank? Or something more disturbing?

Jeremy, whose mother died in a car accident six years earlier, is in his directionless early twenties and expert at derailing his dad when he asks what he plans to do with his life. A customer, Stephanie, gradually persuades him to help investigate the scenes they have witnessed on the tapes. It seems a dangerous task; at best, the sequences are deeply strange, but the worst of them – bodies moving under a tarp, a woman fleeing down a dark country road ahead of the camera’s bobbing light – suggest kidnap and torture.

When Jeremy’s boss, Sarah Jane, watches one of the videos, she recognises the property where these mysterious scenes are being filmed. She embarks on her own investigation, one that involves her in a situation as sad as it is strange, and that transforms the novel from a horror story into something less easily classifiable. There are several changes of pace and tone throughout the book, some of which are less successful than others. The most serious problem – the one that hampers the reader’s ability to become immersed in Darnielle’s often highly atmospheric writing – has to do with framing. Just who is telling this story?

The novel is mostly written in the third person, but occasionally a first-person narrator interrupts to add their take on events. The first few times this happens, it’s thrilling: it adds a further mystery to be solved, and in one instance delivers a huge and enlivening revelation.

But Darnielle uses this trick too often and in apparently contradictory ways. Some parts of the book only make sense if we assume an omniscient narrator; others suggest that someone intimately involved with what is going on is controlling the narrative; while other asides suggest a narrator far removed in time from the events described, as if the story being told has passed into local legend. “There is a variation on this story so pervasive that it’s sometimes thought of not as a variation but as the central thread,” the narrator tells us, uncertainly. I cannot find a way to make these three modes of telling the story work logically together. I’m not saying they don’t, but the answer isn’t discernible on the page.

The pity of Universal Harvester’s structural problems is that they distract from some interesting and insightful writing – the kind that might be expected from Darnielle, the songwriter for one of the most intelligent indie rock bands of the past 20 years, the Mountain Goats. The book’s second and best section is a lengthy flashback about a woman who goes missing in the mid-1970s after becoming involved with a fringe Christian group. In the eeriest scene, her husband listens to her singing at the sink, “but the song continued at the same pace and tempo, and he realised she’d been praying – chanting”. He doesn’t recognise the prayer, “and he didn’t want to follow it out to where it went”.

That line reinforces the sense, skilfully kept always in our minds, of the threatening isolation of the vast fields of Iowa, where “a farmhouse has no neighbours, not real ones, and if you try looking for them, it shrinks… Walk twenty paces from its door and you’re waist-high in corn or knee-high in bean fields, already forgetting the feel of being behind a door, safely shielded from the sky.”

But there proves to be as much tenderness as horror in Darnielle’s novel, which ultimately has more in common with the small-town loneliness and desire for connection described in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio than it does with rural horror such as Stephen King’s “Children of the Corn”.

One of the things that Jeremy treasures about his sleepy town where the days “roll on like hills too low to give names to” – one of the things that the events of the novel put under threat – is “knowing where you were: this seemed like a big part of the point of living in Nevada, possibly of being alive at all”. 

Universal Harvester
John Darnielle
Scribe, 224pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder