Movie of the Month: London Road (2015)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made BrandonBritnee, and Hanna watch London Road (2015).

Boomer: London Road is a 2015 film about a serial killer. Technically. It’s also a musical about NIMBYism. And a story about community organization and the horizons of understanding, featuring Olivia Colman playing the most hateable character on her CV. 

In late 2006, a series of killings rocked the community of Ipswich, England. Five women, all sex workers, were murdered by a man nicknamed the Ipswich Ripper, later found to be 48-year-old Steve Wright, who had moved into a row house on London Road roughly half a year earlier. All of the women he murdered were known in the area for their line of work, and the area had experienced a huge boom in sex work in recent years due to a variety of socioeconomic factors, including the construction of a new stadium. London Road is not actually about Steve Wright; in fact, he never appears in the film, nor do his victims. Instead, the film focuses on Wright’s neighbors and the way that they dealt with the fallout of the murders and the public scrutiny that it caused to fall upon their small community. Through a series of musical arrangements of actual, verbatim quotes taken from Ipswich locals, journalists, police interviews, and other documentational evidence, Adam Cork and Alecky Blythe crafted a stage musical for London’s Royal National Theatre, where it was staged under the direction of newly hired Artistic Director Rufus Norris. Norris also directed the film version of the musical, released in 2015. 

I’m one of those people who hates musicals. In any other form of writing, having characters walk around and declare their feelings is Bad Writing, but if you take those declarations and set them to music, suddenly it’s the highest form of theater? Please. The linguistic contortions that the author of the musical has to go through in order to turn dialogue (or more often, monologue) into a piece of music are painful to me. The only musicals that I do like are those such as 1984’s Top SecretGod Help the Girl, or True Stories, in which the music is either farcical (the former) or composed solely by a single band (the latter two). And now London Road. When I first wrote about it back in 2016, I noted even then that what I hated about the platonic Western ideal of The Musical was the “taxing way that exposition is forced to fit into the metrics of a song, the natural and idiosyncratic lyricism of plain speech being inelegantly strangled and forced to fit into a rhyme scheme while also carrying the heavy lifting of outlining a narrative.” By stripping away that level of perfidy to reality but maintaining the inherent artificiality of the musical as a form of media, London Road becomes something greater than its genre peers. 

The performative enormity of the platonic Western stage-to-screen musical is mostly absent here. When making that migration from live performance to film, the change in medium is rarely used to enhance the narrative; sure, you might see a dance sequence shot from above in a way that would be impossible to replicate on stage, but in general the staging of the live performance is all-too-often translated directly to screen with as little change as possible. Consider the film version of The Producers, which changed even the dialogue as little as possible, changing Ulla’s line “Why Bloom go so far stage right?” to “Why Bloom go so far camera right?” The line works in the stage version because the narrative is about staging a musical, so in-jokes for the theatrically-attuned crowd work in context, but in the film, which by definition is designed to reach a larger, broader audience, the (barely) re-worked joke falls completely flat. London Road doesn’t have this problem, either, as it uses the medium of film effectively in telling its story, especially in the smaller moments. One of the most striking moments is so small: after the first community meeting post-verdict has concluded, everyone leaves the hall and the organizer of the meeting starts to slowly stack the chairs from the meeting to be stored away. Even though the film isn’t really about Steve Wright, the viewer still feels some elation and vindication when he’s convicted, but that joy is short-lived, and it doesn’t do the work of healing the community. Things won’t simply fall into place and be fine again; the work is real, and it’s long, and it’s often tedious and unrewarding, and stacking chairs is all of those things in a nutshell. It’s a lovely bit of visual storytelling. 

There’s also something genuinely striking about the juxtaposition of the rebuilding of the community and the (often frankly horrible) things said by the people within it. With the final garden competition, things take a turn for the saccharine, like a song from a completely different, less dark musical, but it comes almost immediately on the heels of a quotation from Julie, a London Road resident portrayed by Olivia Colman, in which she empathizes with her neighbors, but not Wright’s victims, who are “better off ten foot under.” While the officially recognized community of London Road gathers to socialize in the hall at St. Jude’s, their cheerful voices carry to the industrial structures that loom large and unmistakably over the neighborhood, literally and metaphorically, where the surviving sex workers talk about their lived experience. “It took all of that for anyone to start helping us,” one woman says, referring to the killings, to which another responds “That’s what’s upsetting,” and then they all join in. “Let’s get those girls off the street,” one of them says, quoting a fairweather crusader, but none of them are. They’re still out there, trying to stay alive and get clean. At the end, the residents of London Road have literally covered the past with a fresh coat of paint, but their NIMBYism remains. Most of the neighborhood starts out with nothing but derision for the prostitutes, but it’s unfocused and unspecified; by the end, one of them looks at a makeshift memorial for the victims and remarks that they’re in Heaven now. In death, some of the same people who condemned them in life have made them saints, although many also still share Julie’s sentiments. 

I’m going to be honest, I was surprised on the rewatch how much of the film there still is to go after the verdict has been delivered. That first section is much more interesting to me, in which “everyone is very very nervous,” and then they go through a range of other emotions leading up to and following the trial. That ending is the least interesting part to me, until we see the festivities through the eyes of Vicky (Kate Fleetwood), the sex worker whom we’ve seen the most often, as she makes her way through the crowd. We see two reactions to her passing through: a smiling, friendly little girl who gives her a balloon, and a frowning man who glares at her as she departs. These two interactions give the lie to what Julie and her like-minded neighbors keep using as the go-to blanket excuse for their callousness, that they are concerned for the children; the children aren’t the problem here, the adults are. Just as the film seems to be fading out and away from a triumphant moment for London Road, the last face that we actually see is Vicky’s, as she looks down at a world that’s not her own and releases the balloon, while the audio shifts to the real recordings of the sex workers of Ipswich. 

I love this movie, and I think that it would be easy to read it as too forgiving of the residents of London Road with regard to their apathy to the fate of the sex workers in their area. I seem to recall that, when I was first reading reviews of it 5 years ago, a few critics mentioned the excision of at least one additional song from their point of view, and that the stage musical had a more sympathetic approach to them, but I can’t find anything that corroborates that. What do you think, Brandon? Would the inclusion of more from their point of view help the film feel more balanced? Does it seem sufficiently critical of London Road’s NIMBYism, or does it send mixed messages about the hard work of rebuilding a community? 

Brandon: The overriding thought that lingered with me after this film concluded was “I hate people.”  The residents of London Road are exceedingly Normal in their appearance and their interpersonal politics, and I hated those cruel, hideous beasts with all of my heart.  I was initially skeptical of a movie about the lethal dangers of unregulated on-the-street sex work that included so little of the actual workers’ input, but as the film unfolds the intent of its POV choice gradually makes sense.  Given that these women’s friends & coworkers were recently murdered for participating in their same trade, it makes sense that they’d be reluctant to speak with the interviewers whose transcripts were adapted to the stage & screen in the first place.  Beyond that, this movie is specifically about the standard suburban opinion of that profession & those workers, and the longer the neighborhood busybodies muse on the murders & victims the more vile that opinion sounds.  London Road digs deep into the ugliness of humanity at our least empathetic just by letting the most callously judgmental among us speak/sing for themselves; a movie from the workers’ perspective could totally be worthwhile, but it’d be a different film altogether.

This is an impressively odd, daring movie considering that it looks like the Dramatic Reenactment portions of an unaired Britain’s Most Wanted spin-off.  I was enraged by the plain-text transcripts of the neighborhood interviewees from start to end.  Listening to them deride the Ipswitch Ripper’s victims as “curb crawlers” as if they were some kind of pest infestation quickly chilled my blood in the early scenes.  It didn’t get any better when they expressed admiration for the killers’ extermination of those women as if it were a morally righteous act of vigilante justice instead of a deranged actualization of their own culture-wide misogyny.  Several residents complain that the police weren’t “doing anything” about the neighborhood’s sex work problem before the murders, then Coleman admits in her final speech that she’d like to shake the killer’s hand in thanks, making it crystal clear exactly what they would’ve liked the police to do.  It’s a nauseating sentiment to stew in for a feature-length film, much less one that’s performed in sickly sweet song & dance.

The only residents of London Road I wasn’t furious with were the teenage girls, whose collective nervousness over the mysoginistic murder spree is highlighted in a song where they run through town whispering “It could be anyone; it could be him!” over a soft techno beat.  There are very few moments where the actual music in this musical stands out to me, as the film’s exact-transcripts conceit homogenizes all of its sung dialogue to fit the meter of natural speech.  The teen girls’ song stands out, though, both because it’s easier to sympathize with their paranoia than it is with their parents’ morally righteous fascism and because the soundtrack shifts to a mall-pop texture to match their POV.  What did you think of the music of London Road, Britnee?  Were there any songs or musical flourishes that stood out to you despite the soundtrack’s general monotony?

Britnee: The majority of the music in London Road wasn’t very catchy. I adore musicals, and I look forward to getting hooked on their soundtracks. Most of my playlists and mix tapes have a musical number thrown in. I’m that person. When I read the description of London Road, which I didn’t know existed until watching if for Movie of the Month, I was thrilled to find out it was a musical. And not only was it a musical, it was based on an actual crime that occurred in recent years. I was basically putting more excitement on my expectations of the songs and performances than the actual plot. This is not something I’m proud of, but I’m being honest. It turns out that majority of the musical numbers involved the cast singing verbatim lines from actual interviews and reports from the Ipswich murders. I found it fascinating, but was slightly disappointed that only one song stuck with me. That song would be “Everyone is Very, Very Nervous”. I sing along to the cast recording while driving to the office some mornings. It’s made it onto one of my musical playlists because it’s brilliant. The fear of the townsfolk really comes through in the way the lyrics are sung. The tone is so dark and depressing, and I love it so much.

London Road didn’t really hold my attention from beginning to end. At times, sitting through some of the duller scenes felt like a chore. I have the same problem with a few other plays that got turned into films. The simplicity of a single stage production being performed live just hits me in a different way than watching it as a film. One of the last plays that I saw live was Come From Away, which is also based on true events. It follows the true story of a plane that had an emergency landing in a small Canadian town during the September 11th attacks. I thought about it multiple times while watching London Road, and I can’t help but think that the stage play version of London Road would be just as fabulous. It’s unique and gives a different perspective on what we expect from true-crime dramas, but I would just prefer to see it on stage than on screen.

Hanna, did you think that London Road worked as a film or do you think it’s better suited as a stage production?

Hanna: I think London Road definitely worked as a film, but (and I’m just guessing) the stage production might be better equipped to exaggerate the seclusion/exclusion of the little row house community, and would have forced a little bit of focus that the film lacked. Musicals and stage productions usually have static prop placement for each location, so every setting in the story (“The Market”, “The Apartments”, “The Town Hall”) looks exactly the same every time it’s used. You get the sense that the residents of London Road inhabit a small community in the movie, but I would love to see all of the residents stuffed into the same claustrophobic sets, pacing around and wringing their hands together. You could also use that limited space to emphasize the exile of the sex workers, by keeping them squeezed around the periphery of the staged Community settings (although I think the film does this pretty well, especially in the final scene).

This is a small detail in favor of the film, but I liked that the actual road could be fully represented in the film in a way that wouldn’t really be possible on a stage. The long shots of nothing but the cold road, or of people wandering up and down the road, made me think about those intrinsically neutral public spaces that become battlegrounds for a community’s identity, especially in terms of who should/should not be allowed to exist there. London Road is first shared derisively between the row home residents and the workers; then shrouded by police tape and Steven Wright’s murders; and, finally, fully reclaimed by the residents (including men who paid the workers for sex) and their overwhelming flower arrangements. The battle for London Road reminded me of the deterrents cities install in public spaces, like bars on park benches or fences installed around old encampments sites; the focus is on restricting access to that public space, physically and socially, as opposed to expanding the definition of the community. I’m not sure if that aspect of the story would have been as salient to me in the stage production.

Lagniappe

Hanna: I went into London Road absolutely stone cold, and I wouldn’t recommend that approach in retrospect. I was VERY confused when the singing began, and I was convinced that the shifty axe-wielding neighbor was the real murderer for the majority of the film (even after Steven Wright is convicted), not realizing that London Road is less a whodunit and more of a community reckoning. I think I might get more out of it on a second watch. I also want to thank Boomer for introducing me to the term NIMBY, which is a term I feel like I’ve been looking for my whole life.

Britnee: I was concerned about London Road being a distasteful film, considering how recent it came out after the actual Ipswich murders and the fact that it’s a musical. It didn’t really go that route as it was more focused on the members of the community than the sensationalism of the murders, but I wondered what the family members of the victims thought of the play and the film. Especially since the play came out less than five years after the murders. It turns out the mother of Tania Nicol (one of the victims) did speak out against the tragedy being made into a production while she was still grieving the death of her daughter. I wasn’t able to find out much about the thoughts of the other victims’ family members, but I think this is definitely something important to consider.

Brandon: We can’t let this conversation go by without acknowledging how absurd it is that Tom Hardy is featured so prominently this movie’s marketing.  He’s only in the film for a brief cameo (as a scruffy, super-sus cab driver who’s a little too into true-crime), but you’d think based on the posters and publicity stills that he was competing with Colman for the lead.  I guess that sly act of false-advertising does add a little intrigue as to whether he’s a suspect (especially as an addition to the “It could be anyone!” pool of possibilities), but mostly it’s just amusingly pragmatic.  A genuine, certified movie star wanted to lend his star-power to a stage drama he admired, and the producers milked that for all that it was worth.  Smart.

Boomer: I’m realizing that, for someone who frontloaded their part of the conversation with discussion of how he felt about musicals, I didn’t note which songs on here I really liked. The number one has to be “It Could Be Him,” as I love its frenetic pacing and undercurrent of discomfort in spite of its catchy nature. “Everyone Is Very Very Nervous” is also a lot of fun, as it starts small and builds to a neat crescendo (it’s also the song that was most heavily featured in the trailer, which makes it the default London Road main theme in my mind). But for my money, the song that you’d never hear in a standard musical (give or take the occasional iconoclastic production) is “Cellular Material.”  

Upcoming Movies of the Month
May: Britnee presents Trouble in Mind (1985)
June: Hanna presents Chicken People (2016)
July: Brandon presents Starstruck (1982)

-The Swampflix Crew

Beware the Slenderman (2017)

threehalfstar

One of the most common complaints that documentaries suffer is the accusation that they exploit their human subjects for artistic (and financial) gain. It’d be difficult to argue against that accusation in regards to the recent HBO Docs release Beware the Slenderman, which turns the real-life stabbing of a twelve year old girl into a midnight movie creepshow & a jumping point for internet age fear mongering. Although I could comfortably call Beware the Slenderman exploitative, it’s exploitation cinema done exceedingly well. The first hour of the documentary is highly effective as bone-chilling horror, opening with a Blair Witch-style dramatization of the titular “creepy pasta” the Slenderman in a heavily pixelated version of the woods. As the film tracks the legend of the Slenderman from online fiction to amateur video games to Tumblr fan art to YouTube mainstay, it makes some really interesting and genuinely unnerving points about the evolution of memes as a collective “virus of the mind” and the function of online folklore as “digital fairy tales.” It’s when the film instead focuses on the 2014 stabbing of a young Wisconsin girl that it veers into the more exploitative True Crime territory and loses track of its Candyman-esque fascination with the nature of urban legends. I definitely found one side of that divide far more satisfying than the other, but watching Beware the Slenderman navigate this confusing tonal clash and gleefully cross some ethical lines to get its point across made for a unique documentary experience.

Two twelve year old girls are taken into custody and tried as adults for stabbing their friend 19 times in the woods of Wisconsin suburbia. As there has been no decision made in their first-degree attempted murder trial to this date, a charge that could possibly earn them each 65 years in prison, the two girls’ story has, by design, no conclusion. All we know upfront about the stabbing is that the victim thankfully survived and that the accused have made no attempt to hide the fact that they are guilty. The crime is introduced in-film through media coverage montage and long-form interviews with the accused’s parents, which tells their entire life story to a backdrop of home video footage. The parents describe mostly normal childhoods outside stray sociopathic reactions to pop culture media (specifically the infamously devastating scene from the beginning of Bambi) and a gothy tinge to their daughters’ online activity. There’s a lot of frustration and empathy in those interviews as the parents struggle to make sense of children they thought they knew, an internet culture they completely underestimated, and the earliest signs of mental illness in otherwise normal-seeming childhoods. The problem is that they aren’t the only interviews the documentary is structured around. In a much sleazier line of inquiry, Beware the Slenderman integrates long stretches of the two girls’ confessions/police interrogations from mere hours after the stabbing. Watching two children describe the stabbing of a third child in cold-blooded terms is just about the most exploitative thing I’ve ever seen in True Crime media, but it serves the material well, especially in the way it deepens the creepiness of the film’s titular monster, the Slenderman.

Originally penned as a creepy pasta, but earning a full-blown urban legend status through online folklore, the Slenderman is a tall, lanky being with long arms, claws, and retractable tendrils. He is faceless, always wears a suit & tie, and is naturally drawn to young children. Adults see his attraction to children as a threat of harm, but children (especially bullied outsiders) see it as welcoming & protective. As one interviewee puts it, “Often in the adult world, we can forget how much it sucks to be a kid.” This modernized version of the Boogeyman or the Pied Piper offers alienated children the promise of protection & community. The scary part is that some kids truly believe he’s real, real enough for them to stab a friend 19 times to “prove themselves worthy” and to “prove the skeptics wrong.” By their logic they had no choice but to slay a human sacrifice for the Slenderman, explaining, “I didn’t want to do this, but I was afraid of what would happen if I didn’t.” Richard Dawkins is brought in as an evolution expert on the way memes spread & adapt. Brothers Grimm scholars attempt to contextualize the phenomenon in the tradition of fairy tale folklore. None of the talking heads are nearly as effective as seeing for yourself how the Slenderman is represented in online multimedia art and hearing what the fictional character’s devotees are willing to do “for him” in the real world. It may be a question of my general genre preferences with all media, but I think this documentary works best when it pursues this type of urban legend horror aesthetic instead of playing with the ethics of True Crime narratives.

I’ll admit that as an audience, my biggest hurdle with Beware the Slenderman was its length, not its ethical dilemmas. At two full hours, the film outwears its welcome a bit by the concluding 30min stretch, which started to feel as pedestrian as an episode of Dateline NBC. I’m always advocating for my horror cinema to limit its runtime, though, and it’s that genre distinction that allowed me to enjoy the documentary despite its occasionally objectionable sense of morality. Using the near-murder of a young girl by her peers for shock value or an audience hook is certainly questionable, especially if the ultimate purpose of your works to creep adults out with technophobic warnings about what children are getting into online. That’s not even to mention that the film liberally appropriates artwork from those same children for its imagery without pay or credit. I expect that kind of unethical alarmism in my horror media, though, and I really like the way Beware the Slenderman tried to make phenomena like the Ice Bucket Challenge, planking, and YouTube reaction videos into just as sinister of a force as CandyCrush is in #horror and Skype is in Unfriended. Before the easy fact checking days of the internet, people used to believe films like The Blair Witch Project, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Cannibal Holocaust were genuine documentaries, real life recordings of actual incidents. Beware the Slenderman works best as a continuation of that horror tradition by actually filling that role as a document of a real-life event. It’s a little overlong, a tad sensationalist, and mundanely sleazy in some of its True Crime touches, but it’s also a great horror film, especially for a documentary.

-Brandon Ledet