“Everybody’s very, very nervous,” runs the most memorable lyrical refrain in “London Road,” and one imagines the filmmakers found themselves singing it often. An avant-garde musical based on the recorded testimonies of concerned residents following the Ipswich serial murders of 2006, Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork’s unique piece was a bold enough proposition for the U.K.’s National Theatre a few years ago, let alone for the bigscreen. Yet while Rufus Norris’ stage production was an unlikely triumph, its film adaptation — in the same helmer’s hands — emerges as something of a curate’s egg. Though performed with stalwart conviction by an ensemble including Olivia Colman and Tom Hardy, Blythe’s much-celebrated verbatim technique translates in surprisingly mannered fashion to camera, while Norris’ season-based visual treatment of the material cloys. Commercial appeal beyond Blighty is limited; even at home, this may prove a “Road” less traveled.
Local auds, at least, won’t require much factual context for the proceedings: Routinely compared to the infamous Yorkshire Ripper case of the 1970s (itself recently portrayed onscreen in the “Red Riding” trilogy), the Ipswich murders stand among the most headline-hogging British criminal stories of the last decade. Forklift driver Steve Wright — dubbed the Suffolk Strangler by the press — killed five women in a six-week period between October and December 2006, preying on the young prostitutes who plied their trade near his home on the eponymous working-class road in the Suffolk county town of Ipswich. Though it was a widely panic-inducing case that also prompted heated media debate over the country’s anti-prostitution laws, Blythe and Cork’s production was preoccupied less with its national resonance than with the trauma it caused closer to home — specifically, among Wright’s own stunned, unsuspecting neighbors on London Road.
A playwright dedicated to the documentary-style practice of verbatim theatre, Blythe visited Ipswich in the weeks before Wright’s arrest to interview these residents, returning at different stages of the trial to monitor and record the shifting mood of the community. Though the musical book she built from these recordings with composer Cork has been substantially restructured for the screen, zeroing in on key personalities from the stage production’s collection of 70-odd characters, the integrity of Blythe’s method has been retained in her screenplay: All the dialogue stems from the interviews, albeit set to a lilting choric meter that identifies lyricism in lines as banal as, “I’ve got 17 hanging baskets in my back garden.”
In an artificial stage environment, the technique might conjure a kind of poignant naturalism; onscreen, it has a markedly different, distancing effect. Amid location shooting — in the London borough of Bexley rather than Ipswich — the contrivance of the sung delivery is more prominent, working at odds with the authenticity of the words themselves. The film guardedly segues from spoken-word realism to sung numbers and back, assisted by the deliberately unrefined “verbatim dancing” of original stage choreographer Javier De Frutos, though the contrast between the musical and non-musical sequences creates two subtly but distractingly dissonant planes of reality. Blythe’s favored style may be an acquired taste even in its most assured context; many unaccustomed viewers will be bewildered by its more haphazardly experimental execution here.
Anchoring this unsteadily ambitious enterprise, fortunately, is no less reliable and empathic a screen presence than Colman, as earnestly community-minded single mother Julie — selected by Blythe (with script guidance from Moira Buffini, who recently penned Cary Fukunaga’s “Jane Eyre”) as the fastening character and irregular narrator of the film version. Julie’s fretful concerns about Wright (a relative newcomer to London Road at the time of the murders) are largely echoed by those of her fellow residents: The prevailing chorus of insecurity over how well one really knows one’s neighbors is audible even through their more mundane observations. It’s also Julie who spearheads the publicity-spoiled street’s recovery operation as the trial wears on — symbolized by a climactic spring gardening contest — though there’s a more darkly conservative edge to her we’re-all-in-this-together spirit, as she admits to feeling guilty gratitude toward Wright for ridding the area of sex workers.
If Colman plays these tricky shifts in consciousness beautifully, none of London Road’s other inhabitants come into focus quite as clearly. In particular, single male loner Dodge (Paul Thornley) is subject to some specious narrative wrongfooting by Blythe and Norris in the early going, as the manhunt for the killer rages on; playing up his taciturn nature, with the camera hovering near him at key locations, the film appears to foster audience suspicion around him to no obvious end. “You automatically think it could be him,” sing two schoolgirls (one played by Eloise Laurence, star of Norris’ 2012 freshman feature, “Broken”) in the film’s most dynamic musical number, as they cast doubt on the motives of every man in their immediate vicinity; it’s an effective articulation of the communal paranoia that takes hold in such times of crisis, though the complicity of the pic’s perspective with this irrational position is questionable. Further to this point, Hardy contributes a wry, touchingly modest cameo — and exhibits an unexpectedly fluty singing voice — as a taxi driver made overly defensive by nervy passengers of his innocent serial-killer fascination.
While lavished with several awards in Britain and on the festival circuit, the narratively and stylistically over-cranked suburban melodrama “Broken” didn’t prove National Theatre director Norris as natural a fit for film as, say, Sam Mendes or even Stephen Daldry. Less ornate and obviously closer to Norris’ heart, “London Road” still doesn’t quite convince in this regard: There’s an over-compensatory fussiness to its most elaborate formal conceits, with the gradual shifting of the pic’s palette from desaturated December grays to iridescent oil-pastel tones a crude symbolic device.
In terms of musical staging for the screen, it’s tempting to speculate that Norris has been most inspired by Tom Hooper’s highly divisive work on “Les Miserables”: Working with Hooper’s regular d.p. Danny Cohen, this oppositely scaled film frequently recalls that blockbuster’s claustrophobia with its tight closeups and studiedly asymmetrical compositions, with the intent of bringing a wider population’s crisis to a point of aggressive, in-your-face subjectivity. As “London Road” skips toward a cheerily redemptive conclusion — complete with spring blossoms and buoyant balloons — Norris’ camera perhaps inadvertently identifies a more insular mindset in this unified community.