Fea­ture Rose­mary Neill talks to the di­rec­tor of a con­tro­ver­sial new film

A mu­si­cal film ex­plores how an or­di­nary com­mu­nity be­comes caught up in a string of no­to­ri­ous mur­ders, writes Rose­mary Neill

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

Over a grim 10-day pe­riod in De­cem­ber 2006, the bod­ies of five mur­dered women were found in rivers and wood­land in the low­ly­ing English county of Suf­folk. All the vic­tims were pros­ti­tutes who had sold their bod­ies on the streets of the re­gional mar­ket town, Ip­swich, to pay for their drug ad­dic­tions.

A deep sense of un­ease set­tled over Ip­swich as the media de­scended like a flock of fam­ished seag­ulls. The mur­ders dom­i­nated na­tional head­lines — the killer was dubbed the “Ip­swich Rip­per’’ and “Suf­folk Stran­gler’’— and lo­cal women were warned not to go out alone at night. At one point, 350 po­lice were work­ing on the case and free per­sonal alarms were handed out. Although lo­cal author­i­ties put up Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions, the at­mos­phere was any­thing but fes­tive.

Lon­don Road, a boldly un­ortho­dox film di­rected by Ru­fus Nor­ris, the re­cently ap­pointed di­rec­tor of Eng­land’s Na­tional Theatre, doc­u­ments how this re­gional com­mu­nity re­acted to be­com­ing the epi­cen­tre of this ex­traor­di­nar­ily vi­o­lent and tragic event. Drawn en­tirely from in­ter­views with res­i­dents caught up in one of Bri­tain’s worst se­rial crimes, Lon­don Road is a kind of work­ing-class or­a­to­rio in which the di­a­logue is half sung, half spo­ken.

While Nor­ris has cast two high-pro­file ac­tors, Tom Hardy and Olivia Col­man, in sig­nif­i­cant roles, the movie is very much an ensem­ble piece. “The pro­tag­o­nist, in a way, is the com­mu­nity,’’ says the di­rec­tor. He de­scribes his film, adapted from a crit­i­cally ac­claimed Na­tional Theatre pro­duc­tion that he di­rected, as “the story of a com­mu­nity that heals it­self’’.

Writ­ten by Bri­tish play­wright and ver­ba­tim spe­cial­ist Alecky Blythe, Lon­don Road ex­plores the res­i­dents’ views of the mur­dered women and the cli­mate of fear — and, in some cases, of ex­cite­ment — that gripped the town be­fore the killer was ar­rested. Armed with com­pelling foren­sic ev­i­dence, po­lice moved quickly to ar­rest a mid­dle-aged fork­lift driver, Steve Wright, who was even­tu­ally con­victed of all five mur­ders.

Wright had used pros­ti­tutes regularly and lived on Lon­don Road. Overnight this residential street — a hud­dle of white, grey and peb­ble­crete ter­races with boxy, con­crete front yards — be­came syn­ony­mous with the mur­ders and pros­ti­tu­tion. (De­spite fierce op­po­si­tion from res­i­dents, sex work­ers had been so­lic­it­ing in Lon­don Road for years, en­cour­ag­ing kerb crawlers and ply­ing their trade in public places.)

Nor­ris’s film, which is re­leased in Aus­tralia this month, nav­i­gates the ten­sions around Wright’s trial, the views of sur­viv­ing sex work­ers and, fi­nally, the street’s at­tempts to move on from the seed­i­ness and vi­o­lence that had come to de­fine it. Most of the re­views have been glow­ing ( The New States­man hails it as “a tri­umph’’ and The Guardian calls it an “ad­dic­tive foren­sic thriller’’, though Va­ri­ety’s critic finds it “sur­pris­ingly man­nered’’).

Ac­cord­ing to its mar­ket­ing blurb, Lon­don Road “tells a mov­ing story of or­di­nary peo­ple com­ing to­gether dur­ing the dark­est of ex­pe­ri­ences’’. But the film also airs deeply con­fronting views about the slain pros­ti­tutes. “They cer­tainly weren’t an­gels,” says one res­i­dent. “In all our ex­pe­ri­ence they were foul-mouthed slags.” Two teenage school­girls find the killings “quite ex­cit­ing’’, given that noth­ing much usu­ally hap­pens in their town. Even more dis­turbingly, a key char­ac­ter called Julie — a mother and com­mu­nity-minded woman played by Col­man — con­fesses she thought about shak­ing Wright’s hand, be­cause in the wake of his killing spree the sex work­ers and kerb crawlers fi­nally dis­ap­peared from her street.

Nor­ris stresses these views aren’t an in­vi­ta­tion to judge the res­i­dents; rather, they re­flect the com­plex­i­ties of the sit­u­a­tion in which they found them­selves. “You go, ‘Yes, all of us with our lib­eral and broad-minded heads on will have deep sym­pa­thy for the vic­tims in that sit­u­a­tion.’ But sim­i­larly for all of us, if you’d been liv­ing there with teenage kids, with blow jobs and sex hap­pen­ing out­side your front door for years, you’d have a dif­fer­ent take on it. The last thing we want to do is point the fin­ger.’’

Col­man’s Julie is, for the most part, a warm and bub­bly mother of a teenage girl who helps her neigh­bours re­cover from the taint of the mur­ders by or­gan­is­ing a gar­den­ing com­pe­ti­tion. Soon there are more hang­ing bas­kets than you’d find in a Bun­nings gar­den cen­tre. Nor­ris says he chose Col­man for this role be­cause he saw the cast as a kind of col­lec­tive every­woman or every­man, peo­ple whom you might “pass in the street and not no­tice’’. ( One as­sumes the BAFTA award-win­ning Col­man and fel­low star Hardy will take this re­mark in the spirit in which it was in­tended.)

“Olivia,’’ con­tin­ues the award-win­ning theatre and film di­rec­tor, “has that amaz­ing abil­ity to kind of be just like ev­ery woman, some­how. She’s a rare film star and she can fit into that kind of en­vi­ron­ment. The sec­ond thing is that she’s com­pletely bril­liant. The third thing is that char­ac­ter and that [real-life] per­son is very much the heart of that com­mu­nity and is an in­cred­i­ble force for good in that street. But she also says the most un­palat­able things.’’

Col­man has played highly charged roles be­fore — in the tele­vi­sion drama Broad­church she

por­trayed a de­tec­tive whose hus­band is an ac­cused child mur­derer — and she brought to that char­ac­ter a brit­tle in­ten­sity, her fur­rowed brow and trem­bling lower lip a by­word for epic pain. She found Lon­don Road posed dif­fer­ent chal­lenges that also brought her close to tears. The ac­tress ad­mits she was some­times ex­as­per­ated by the ex­act­ing ver­ba­tim di­a­logue, which in­cludes the char­ac­ters’ ums, ers, ver­bal tics and rep­e­ti­tions.

“I can learn a page of script fairly quickly, just from years of prac­tice,’’ Col­man says in the pro­duc­tion notes. “But it took at least 10 times longer to learn a page of Alecky’s ver­ba­tim script. I did start to won­der, ‘ Why the hell did I say yes?’ But hav­ing been fear­ful of it and close to tears at times, I’d say it was one of the most en­joy­able and ful­fill­ing jobs I’ve ever had.”

The Na­tional Theatre pro­duc­tion opened in 2011 (there was a re­turn sea­son in 2012), and most of the orig­i­nal cast ap­pears in the film. Nor­ris re­veals Col­man wasn’t alone in find­ing the ver­ba­tim di­a­logue and singing hard go­ing: dur­ing re­hearsals for the Na­tional pro­duc­tion, “there were tears I would say ev­ery other day’’ and “per­form­ers who were just bang­ing their heads against the wall with how dif­fi­cult the mu­sic was’’.

He also re­veals that A-list ac­tor Hardy, star of Mad Max: Fury Road, agreed to play a cameo role in the film as a favour to him — but only if the job came with a get-out clause. Hardy plays a taxi driver who has a creep­ily deep knowl­edge of se­rial killers and an even more un­set­tling com­pul­sion to talk about it. He sings, hence the es­cape clause. Nor­ris ex­plains: “Tom said, ‘Mate, if I can do you a favour and learn some­thing new, that would be bril­liant. But I’m keep­ing the door be­hind me open. That’s the deal. Be­cause I’m re­ally scared. It’s re­ally hard, I don’t know if I can do it … so I’ve got to be able to leave at any point.’ ’’ Nor­ris says the ac­tor worked for hours with the film’s mu­si­cal di­rec­tor, though it was ev­i­dent early on he would suc­ceed. He says the get-out clause was sim­ply a case of Hardy “mak­ing sure he’s not crap’’.

Asked if he was sur­prised when Blythe’s un­con­ven­tional theatre piece be­came a hit, Nor­ris replies in his class­less Lon­don ac­cent (he is the Na­tional’s first non-Oxbridge di­rec­tor in 40 years): “I dunno. When­ever you ex­pect some­thing to be a hit, that’s a sure sign it’s not go­ing to be. I’ve had enough sur­prises on that front; two or three decades have in­su­lated me from that feel­ing of se­cu­rity about any­thing, re­ally … But all of us felt in­su­lated from crit­i­cism be­cause we be­lieved in it to such a great de­gree.’’ He ad­mits, how­ever, that be­cause Lon­don Road “was un­like any­thing else, it was a hard sell’’ when it came to ce­ment­ing a movie deal with BBC Films, for which he also made his first fea­ture film, Bro­ken, also set in a seem­ingly un­re­mark­able sub­ur­ban English street.

Of­ten shot in som­bre hues of blue and grey, Nor­ris’s sec­ond film avoids de­pict­ing the mur­ders, the killer or the vic­tims. Why? “The film’s not about them is the sim­ple an­swer,’’ Nor­ris says in a slightly de­fen­sive tone. “Frankly, if the story was about them then the whole ques­tion of whether it was un­eth­i­cal or ex­ploita­tive would have more va­lid­ity.’’ In trans­fer­ring the mu­si­cal pro­duc­tion to the big screen, he says the big­gest chal­lenge was record­ing it live. “It’s im­mensely dif­fi­cult to sing,’’ he says, re­fer­ring to the score by Adam Cork. “We had to record it live, and there’s re­ally only been one ma­jor movie that has been recorded live and that was Les Mis­er­ables, and they kind of had 20 times the bud­get we have.’’

Although he once saw him­self as a theatre out­sider, Nor­ris has since worked with some of the big­gest names in the busi­ness, in­clud­ing David Hare, Laura Lin­ney and No­bel lau­re­ate Wole Soyinka. He di­rected Lin­ney in Les Li­aisons Dan­gereuses on Broad­way in a 2008 pro­duc­tion that earned five Tony Award nom­i­na­tions, while his West End re­vival of Cabaret net­ted two Olivier Awards. In Lon­don in 2007 he di­rected the stage adap­ta­tion of Ver­non God Lit­tle, Aus­tralian DBC Pierre’s Booker Prize-win­ning novel about a teenager who is wrongly blamed for a high school mas­sacre. (As it pre­miered, this ex­u­ber­ant satire was over­shad­owed by a real-life shoot­ing on a Vir­ginia cam­pus that, haunt­ingly enough, echoed the mas­sacre de­picted in the novel.)

Although he has two films un­der his belt, Nor­ris promised he would be “chained’’ to the Na­tional Theatre’s build­ing at Lon­don’s South­bank once he took up the com­pany’s di­rec­tor­ship — one of the world’s most in­flu­en­tial jobs in theatre. He was re­port­edly a pop­u­lar choice for the cov­eted job, but his ten­ure has not been with­out in­ter­nal drama. Tessa Ross had been work­ing as chief ex­ec­u­tive along­side Nor­ris, but abruptly re­signed just months af­ter tak­ing up her role. As she stepped down, Ross, who has de­vel­oped highly suc­cess­ful films in­clud­ing

Slum­dog Mil­lion­aire and 12 Years a Slave, at­tacked the theatre’s man­age­ment struc­ture, declar­ing that only one per­son should be in charge. The Na­tional’s lead­er­ship struc­ture has since re­verted to a more tra­di­tional model, with a gen­eral man­ager and Nor­ris as di­rec­tor.

Al­most five months into the new gig, Nor­ris tells Re­view he is still work­ing out how to bal­ance the cre­ative and ad­min­is­tra­tive de­mands of his role. He has just di­rected Academy Award nom­i­nee Chi­we­tel Ejio­for in an up­date of the 15th-cen­tury moral­ity play Every­man, adapted by Bri­tain’s poet lau­re­ate Carol Ann Duffy. This show, about a man forced into a con­ver­sa­tion with God, was lauded by the crit­ics and screened here last month (Au­gust) as part of the Na­tional Theatre Live cin­ema pro­gram.

“I imag­ined that it would be fran­tic but it has sur­prised me — yeah, the in­box is end­less,’’ says Nor­ris of his new po­si­tion. “Through force of ne­ces­sity as much as my own foolish op­ti­mism, I’ve ended up di­rect­ing quite a lot at the be­gin­ning, which has meant I’ve had less time at the desk than I would have liked. It’s just start­ing to set­tle down now.’’ He adds diplo­mat­i­cally that “nom­i­nally it’s the top job, but the re­al­ity is that there’s just a bril­liant team here’’.

Re­flect­ing on why a ver­ba­tim play turned film about res­i­dents in­di­rectly en­snared in a se­ries of mur­ders has res­onated with au­di­ences, he muses: “For me, what makes the piece uni­ver­sal is that ev­ery day you read in the news about this tragedy or that act of vi­o­lence, and you very rarely get to un­der­stand the im­pact on the peo­ple who live there, both be­fore, dur­ing and af­ter, and that’s very much what I’ve con­cen­trated on.’’ He says Lon­don Road presents hu­man­ity in a “very mid­dle-Eng­land kind of way in all its kind of mun­dan­ity. It sounds very un­watch­able when you put it like that, but it’s ex­tra­or­di­nary be­cause it’s im­me­di­ately recog­nis­able to ev­ery­body.’’

Lon­don Road is in cine­mas from Septem­ber 24.

THE PRO­TAG­O­NIST, IN A WAY, IS THE COM­MU­NITY RU­FUS NOR­RIS

Olivia Col­man, cen­tre, with fel­low cast mem­bers in Lon­don Road; be­low, di­rec­tor Ru­fus Nor­ris on the film set

Anita Dob­son, left, and Tom Hardy, be­low, in Lon­don Road

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