Since 2009, TIFF has offered a City To City program that focuses on international films from a specific city. At its core, the idea is a compelling one: to look at the cinema output of a single city during the span of a single year. Last year offered a glimpse at Seoul, South Korea, while previous years saw Istanbul, Tel Aviv, Mumbai, Athens, and Buenos Aires take the stage — each arguably a city in a country whose films are overlooked by the typical North American filmgoer. This year, though, the city of choice is London, which, to put it lightly, is a less interesting pick (granted there are only so many cities producing enough films to fill a whole program). London, unlike many of the other past cities, it might be said, doesn’t need the same sort of special attention. Thankfully, though, this year’s picks seem to at least be eclectic and mostly interesting indie flicks that might not have otherwise garnered much attention.
One such film is “London Road,” an odd and deeply individual film directed by Rufus Norris and based upon a stage play of the same name by Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork (who show up here with a script and music, respectively). The conceit, while original, will likely divide audiences: “London Road” is a musical built from verbatim transcripts of interviews, news reports, and video footage, all surrounding the 2006 murders of five women on (none other than) London Road in Ipswich, England.
That’s right. The whole movie — songs included — is composed entirely of transcripts of actual people saying actual things, complete with every “um,” “like,” and stutter you’d be horrified to hear if you recorded yourself for a day. The results are (surprisingly) not completely terrible. The songs constructed from these blurbs are interesting, circular and repetitive, many building to a fever pitch of sounds and frenetic voices. So, for every painful and empty bit of dialogue, there is a fascinating glimpse at reality: raw and timid, ignorant and insightful, clever and cliche.
The story beneath it all, though, is — not to lessen the tragedy — far less interesting. “London Road” picks up after the fourth body is found. The victims, it turns out, are all prostitutes — a fact which leaves many citizens conflicted, unsure if they are in fact safe simply because they themselves are not prostitutes, and guilty because they disliked the late-night solicitations that had been occurring on their modest street. At first, there is an extreme sense of isolation: anyone could be the killer. But when the fifth and final body is discovered and an arrest is quickly made, the community’s anxiety immediately turns to the charged man’s guilt. Was it him? Is it over? How do we move on?
What follows is deeply odd and, at times, completely disdainful, as the citizens of London Road come out of their respective shells and join together in beautifying their small community, rallying around their shared confusion, and chaotic months full of police investigations, hounding reporters, and fellow homeowners fleeing. The prevailing, if bashful, consensus: Thank God it got those women off our street.
For everything that happens, and all the tension inherent in this true tale, there is a surprising lack of forward motion. The old cinematic cliche, show don’t tell, seems to have been lost on Norris and company, for “London Road” does very, very little showing, and a whole lot of telling (even for a musical). It’s painfully apparent, as the film lumbers on, that to stay true to this conceit, not much can be shown happening, it just has to be talked (or sung) about in the past tense. The only real moment of suspense hinges upon the verdict of the court (which for many isn’t suspenseful at all).
But while many movies (and musicals) can get by with a thin story, one without any real characters is bound to flounder. Again, a fault that can be pinned on the conceit, “London Road” offers up nobody to get to know, nobody to understand, nobody to cling to. Sure there are some familiar faces to hang out with (Olivia Colman, Paul Thornley, Tom Hardy, Nick Holder), but due to the circumstances, we can’t really get to know any of them — ignoring the fact that we are asked to laugh at several of them. The only real character is the community itself, and the strange and exclusive groupthink that is born. The tragedy, though, is watching the surviving prostitutes — who, upon being already disliked, have been shunned and forgotten — as they attempt to get clean and find stable jobs deep in the film’s periphery, a sort of painful afterthought that stands deserving of its own movie.
“London Road,” on stage and celluloid, is an experiment likely to fall flat outside of the most devoted of cinephiles (and theatergoers), but an exciting one nonetheless, even if only for its boldness. Cork’s music, while never truly surprising or inspiring, is, lyrically speaking, very inventive. And the choreography is engrossing, if unoriginal and muted at times. But, mostly, the film is static and airless, announcing its adaptation status openly. So, despite a game cast, it’s hard to get hooked in this characterless, narrative-light, and overly obvious community critique. [C-]