Dallas — Earlier this month I took my girlfriend to the Fathom Events screening of the musical The King and I. She’d never seen it before; I’d never seen it on the big screen. This was, of course, the hit 1956 film version of the Broadway smash, with Yul Brynner recreating his Tony-winning performance as The King (to an Oscar win), and Deborah Kerr filling in for Gertrude Lawrence. It isn’t on the level of the confirmed ’50s film-musical masterpieces like The Bandwagon or Singin’ In the Rain, but it was entertaining and charming in the grand old-school way, based loosely on real events and rather flatly directed by Walter Lang, as though he were afraid to venture outside the realm of seeing the Broadway original from the middle row of the house.
The polar opposite of that, the standard Hollywood tuner (as Variety calls them) can be seen in London Road, the unconventional new British musical which is likewise based on a stage success adapted from a real incident, except anything but loosely. It’s not the first England-set, stage-to-screen musical about a serial killer—only this one’s not fictional, not 19th century, not romantic, and not a cannibal/barber. And, we never even see him.
London Road, which opens Friday at the Angelika Film Centers in Dallas and Plano, covers the time between 2006 and 2008 when a murderer named Steve Wright strangled five prostitutes in the town of Ipswich, about 60 miles northeast of London. Until his arrest, the town was gripped with fear, and people, especially young women—including the prostitutes—were afraid to walk the streets at night. Writer Alecky Blythe interviewed the citizens, police, and media figures of Ipswich about this experience, and along with Adam Cork turned those interviews, verbatim, into the book and lyrics of the musical London Road. Under the direction of Rufus Norris, it was a smash hit at The National Theatre of London, and piled up awards and critical raves. Norris and Blythe have reteamed to adapt the play into the 2015 film now arriving stateside.
As it was onstage, neither Wright nor his victims are ever seen. Instead, the focus is on the human behavior of those affected by this crime; every word of the dialogue and lyrics come directly from those interviewees; even their accents and speech patterns are carefully reproduced in the songs. The result is a most unique cinematic and musical experience like nothing you’ve ever seen or heard before. It won’t win purists of the classic musical form, and not a crowd-pleaser in any case, but those up for something different will be rewarded. The most comparable American film of late I can think of is Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq (with less profanity and penis talk). And unlike Lee’s film, London Road actually ends on an upbeat note, with the town coming together to celebrate its solidarity in a time of crisis, a worthy message for us all.
The ensemble cast (which includes actual Ipswich residents and Blythe in a cameo as a newsreader) will be largely unknown to Yank filmgoers, with the exception of the ubiquitous Tom Hardy as a suspicious cabbie and Olivia Coleman as Julie, the local Neighborhood Watch organizer. In a film of observational vignettes, I have a couple of favorites: a duet of two teenage girls throwing out guesses on the killer’s identity; and a roomful of nervous newsmen and women, each anxious to bae the first to scoop the others on the final verdict of the killer’s trial.
It doesn’t all work, but when it does, it’s extraordinary.
» London Road (91 min., not rated) opens Sept. 23 at the Angelika Film Centers in Dallas and Plano