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'London Road' an arresting true-crime musical

'London Road' an arresting true-crime musical
Tom Hardy in the movie "London Road." (BBC Worldwide North America)

Rufus Norris' "London Road" deals with the aftermath of a few tense months in 2006, when five women turned up murdered near the small English town of Ipswich, Suffolk. The killing spree set the locals on edge and drew a tremendous amount of press coverage, which often compared the murders to those committed by the notorious Yorkshire Ripper between 1975 and 1980. By year's end, a 48-year-old forklift driver named Steven Wright had been arrested and charged; he was ultimately convicted of all five murders two years later.

That summary conveys most of the story and none of the idiosyncratic effect of "London Road," adapted by Alecky Blythe from the acclaimed 2011 stage piece she wrote with Adam Cork. That risky triumph was an especially unique work of verbatim theater, a style of documentary-infused drama in which every line of dialogue is drawn precisely from real-life interviews; Anna Deavere Smith's "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992" and Clio Barnard's "The Arbor" (itself beautifully filmed in 2010) are among the classics of the form.

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"London Road" went one step further, spinning its characters' words into song and heralding a new genre: the true-crime avant-garde musical. When I saw the stage production at the National Theatre in London in 2011, its style of dissonant singsong chit-chat — think Mike Leigh with a dash of Stephen Sondheim — struck me as a brilliant evocation of a community torn open by fear, anxiety, suspicion, gossip, ignorance, defensiveness and occasional indifference.

Norris, who directed the theater production (and made his 2012 filmmaking debut with the coming-of-age drama "Broken"), hasn't messed too much with a good thing, even retaining several performers from the National Theatre ensemble. Shot not in Ipswich but in the London borough of Bexley, the film sticks closely to its marvelous text, retaining its swirling focus on a group, rather than individuals.

Here, as onstage, the musical stylization of every conversational line — with pauses, inflections and imperfections left precisely intact — transmutes the mundane into the unexpectedly poetic. Repetition and progression are key. "Everyone is very, very nervous, um, and very unsure," one character says and then sings aloud, and before long the entire ensemble is singing it in unison, over and over again — a progression that offers an uncanny sense of individual thoughts taking collective root.

The best-known members of the cast are Tom Hardy, in a cameo as a taxi driver who has become a target of mild suspicion ("I've studied serial killers, since, in my mid-teens, and it doesn't mean I am one"), and Olivia Colman, superb as a single mother who admits feeling a certain gratitude to the killer, since all the victims were prostitutes. In one of the most moving passages in the play and the film, a few sex workers step forward to articulate, with tremendous dignity, the horror that has decimated their ranks and left many of them with even fewer options than before.

Norris has wisely avoided any temptation to "open up" the material by showing the actual murders on-screen, which would have sensationalized the piece and distracted from its real point: the human impulse toward ignorance and self-preservation in the face of unspeakable horror. His direction is appreciably subdued; happily, the talented cinematographer Danny Cohen films in a much less overbearing style than his closeup-heavy work on the Tom Hooper film of "Les Misérables."

Still, for all its technical proficiency, "London Road" somehow feels less vividly realized than it did onstage. The use of streets, homes, staircases, department stores and institutional buildings as backdrops amplifies, to some degree, the surreal incongruity of the music. But it also lends the piece a more workmanlike feel, underscored by an editing scheme that can't help but feel overly aggressive as it tries to show us more than can possibly fit in the frame at any given moment. This enchantingly strange movie couldn't possibly be called naturalistic, but at times, it feels somewhat disappointingly normalized.

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'London Road'

Unrated

Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes

Playing: Sundance Sunset Cinema, Los Angeles; Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena

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