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
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