London Road

LONDON ROAD. Starring: Olivia Colman, Kate Fleetwood, and Tom Hardy. Directed by Rufus Norris. Rated MA15+. Restricted. (Strong sexual reference). 92 min.

This British film is a musical thriller based on a National Theatre production about the actual murders of five women, who lived on London Road, Ipswich (in Suffolk, UK), and whose bodies were found in 2006. They were victims of the person, known as the "Suffolk Strangler".

Residents were shattered, when five prostitutes, aged 19 to 29, who lived in the town of Ipswich, were assaulted sexually and murdered brutally by a serial rapist. Each of the victims was strangled, and buried in the woods nearby. The victims used London Road to solicit and attract money to buy themselves drugs, and residents knew that the prostitutes were trading on the street.

The film uses actual dialogue gathered at the time, and the lyrics of the songs in the film are taken verbatim from recorded interviews of people who lived on London Road and in neighbouring areas. Song and dance numbers (such as "Everyone is very, very nervous" and "It could be him") deal pointedly with how the community felt at the time, and in a very original way, melody and music in the film are associated with spoken, vividly-felt recollections.

In the film, Olivia Colman takes the role of a resident, who is worried about what is happening in her street. She is organiser of Ipswich's Neighbourhood Watch committee, but nevertheless talks unfeelingly of the victims being better off dead (she "would shake the killer's hand"). Kate Fleetwood is an anxious street-walker, for whom "regulars keep us going". And Tom Hardy is a nervous taxi-driver, who seems weirdly aware of what motivates serial killers.

The film depicts a community trying to cope with its memories of the violence, and the movie highlights compellingly the reluctance of local government to do anything about pressing social issues, such as prostitution and drug addiction. Problems are caused for the town also by the media sensationalising the events that have occurred within it.

This is a movie that portrays dark truths. The film conveys the trauma of peoples' reaction to a serial killer living among them, and deals with the struggle to reconcile daily lives with personal preconceptions about what is occurring. The film reveals strong prejudice, such as those who thought that prostitutes "got what was coming to them", but there are also residents who believed "it took their lives to help us".

This is an extraordinary film. Its subject matter is something no one would ever think of doing a musical about, but the film is surprisingly absorbing. The residents of London Road are terrified, and their efforts to live through their trauma are illustrated authentically. It is fascinating to see a community rising above the grim reputation forced on it by others. Shared anger, sadness, shame and togetherness showed London Road residents the way to cope with their distress. However, the nature of people's over-enthusiasm and shared delight at the killer's conviction, suggests that not everything will be perfectly alright for this community in the times ahead.

The colour photography in the film fits with the mood of the film, the choreography is excellent, and the musical score is very clever. It is amazing to see the transformation of the residents' speech into melodic form. The direction of the film by Rufus Norris is highly imaginative, as it has to be, to transform sensational events into something musical, and the film employs intimate close-ups and sharp angle shots to give the movie unexpected photographic appeal.

This is a bold, inventive piece of cinema that focuses creatively on those living at the time in London Road. The film is not exploitative at all. We don't see the murderer, and there is no brutality ever shown. The film might offer an unsettling view of the residents of London Road, and has important, chillings things to say about awful events, but it gives us a striking picture of a community trying to heal itself by rising above the trauma of its past. And it does so most unusually.

Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Films and Broadcasting

Sharmill Films

Released September 17, 2015