Thursday, 8 October 2015

London Road (2015)

Steve Wright's 2006 killing spree of sex workers in Ipswich has inspired two dramatisations now; firstly there was the BBC's excellent mini series Five Daughters, which looked at the effects the serial murders had on the relations of the victims and of the community as a whole. It was the second adaptation that focused chiefly on the reverberations and ripples the killings created for the community - the innovative and inventive 2011 National Theatre production, London Road. This quasi-musical was directed by Rufus Norris and performed at the Cottesloe stage, with music by Adam Cork and verbatim dialogue and lyrics by Alecky Blythe. Following the success of Norris' debut feature film, 2012's Broken, London Road has now made the transition from stage to screen.

But has it lost something along the way?

Well unfortunately I'd say the answer is yes - yes, I think it might have, sadly.

The film reminded me a little of Clio Barnard's excellent Andrea Dunbar 'biopic' and drama-documentary, The Arbor. That film took recorded interviews of Dunbar's friends, family and now grown up children and used lip synching actors to perform it to great effect. Norris' film, and indeed his original stage production, takes the transcripts of interviews made by Blythe of the residents in and around Ipswich's 'red light' area, London Road and crafts them into songs which the cast perform.

It's a moving, sobering, somewhat disorientating and occasionally amusing trick that unfortunately I don't think the medium of cinema can truly pull off in the way that theatre or possibly even single act TV drama can. It's actually really commendable that Norris doesn't seek to completely tear apart what made the piece a stageplay just because he's adapting it for film - this is a production that wears its theatrical origins with pride - but, in placing the likes of Olivia Colman and Tom Hardy (good though they are) into the original National Theatre cast reprising their roles, does seem to be there solely to afford the production a sense of the cinematic and pull audiences in, which just feels a little discordant really.

I had high hopes for Norris' follow up to Broken, and whilst I'm not totally disappointed and feel excited that he not only had the audacity to produce something like this as his second feature but that he is also still operating on the very apex of the social agenda, like the classic British directors who made their name in the 70s (Alan Clarke, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach) I do worry that this may unfairly be viewed as a miss-step right now. Unlike a conventional musical, the film is suitably downbeat (it is about the murders of sex workers after all) with much of the action being photographed and lit in a very grim, grey washed out colour, which in itself is quite alienating, because you don't expect to see singing performers against a backdrop of peeling, dirty walls and in grubby caffs. 

Blythe's script repeatedly selects key phrases to shape the songs – “In the wake of what’s been happening recently…”, “You automatically think it could be him…”, “We’re all frightened to go out...", "It's really scared me...I'm just gonna like cry..." - each performed with the stutters, the ums and the ahs that the interviewee's uttered originally. Through a series of loops, samples and repetition it creates a very specific kind of beat, tone and poetry that does slowly captivate the viewer and never more so than in the opening scene when the newscasters reports slowly become songs or when two young girls (one of whom is Eloise Laurence, the brilliant young star of Broken) animatedly scurry through the town being both suspicious, fearful and excited.

What emerges throughout the film is the honesty of those interviews, an honesty that perhaps becomes slightly more palatable set to music, but also may be lost on viewers who are alienated by the genre of the musical. In the wake of the murders, many of the locals felt a macabre sense of relief; for years their front doorstep was effectively not their own - sex workers prowling their pavements plying trade and bringing with them the trouble and poor disreputable reputation that ultimately creates. They may be horrified by Wright's actions, but a part of them is actually pleased that this terrible act effectively ended their neighbourhood's stigma of being a red light area and because it also revitalised the community, as seen in the film's final scenes which feature an 'In Bloom' garden fete. It is here that the film comes alive, shaking off the dour washed out palette, to become bright and gay, much like the community did itself.

Ultimately my instinct is to say London Road didn't quite pull it off, but you really have to applaud it for trying and who knows, with repeated watches and further evaluation, it may prove to be a real grower.

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