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.

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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 and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.