The Music of Ordinary Phrases

“Everyone’s very, very nervous, and… um, unsure of things,” sings a concerned single mother (played by Oliva Colman) as she gazes hesitantly out of the window of her modest row house. She repeats the words in the same melody as she briskly paces down the street that bears the movie’s title, London Road. As Colman enters a shopping plaza, a multitude of voices join in her phrase and her community adopts the same suspicion. Uncertainty and fear are gripping the town of Ipswich, England. Someone has murdered 5 prostitutes, and the killer is on the loose. But violence is not where this movie finds it thrills. None of the murders are shown on screen and shortly after the start, the murderer is found to be living on Colman’s street. London Road instead spends its time focusing on how this unassuming street grapples with tragedy and stigma.

London Road, directed by Rufus Norris and adapted from a 2011 stage performance written by Adam Corky and Alecky Blythe, is a musical based on actual events. Though “based on actual events” here does not imply a cheap marketing ploy. Rather, it is the foundation for the entire movie. Every line from the film is a verbatim quote from a resident of Ipswich and throughout the movie, those lines are transformed into songs. There are strong roles throughout including protective and proactive mother Colman and Tom Hardy, who plays a brief but appreciated appearance as a taxi-driver with a peculiar interest in serial killers, but the main draw is its premise. London Road wants you to hear the music (and the meaning) of ordinary phrases, whether they hint towards fear, take gleeful delight in a little intrigue, or attempt at reconstruction. And the movie does well to make this statement on the spoken word, though it is accompanied by a few flat notes most noticeably at the end.

London Road, the street where most of the action takes place, never was the wealthiest of communities. It is populated by tidy, respectable, and domestic Brits. When, in the years leading up to the murders, prostitution becomes more noticeable on their street after the construction of a soccer (“football”) field nearby, the neighbors speak out, but there is little they can do. Their community seems to be disintegrating as they become wary of their neighborhood. The murders just seem to signify the last nail in the coffin.

As with almost any tragedy, the news media immediately swoops in and their portrayal of the neighborhood as overridden by prostitution and home to a killer adds even more woes to the beleaguered community. The media, as it is embodied in a gaggle of type-A, black suited men and women who scamper around at any hint of a potential story, is often as void and unproductive as in real life. In most scenes with media, as the reporters slowly join in their song, they are not in harmony, like in the shopping plaza with Colman, but in competition. Their phrases are drowned out into relentless noise and the original intent and character of the words are lost. Especially humorous and pointed is a scene where a news reporter has to engineer his lines to carefully navigate around sexual terminology unsuitable for a TV audience. He tries again and again to complete his phrase (and subsequently start his song) and only after a few infuriating minutes does he manage to get it right.

More meaning and information is held in the brief candid remarks of the residents of London Road than in a calculated, canned messages of the reporters. But this doesn’t mean it will be an easy fight for the community to take back the dialogue and to take back their street.

But exactly who is the street for? The prostitutes, who are a constant presence in the background of the film, present my biggest issue with the movie. They only find a voice in the latter half, and, although they offer acute observations on their condition, this should have been confronted earlier. The movie’s resolution is also unsettling in this regard, because even though it focuses on bringing new life to this damaged community, it offers a promise only through a domestic sensibility unavailable to the marginalized prostitutes. The exclusion of the prostitutions is made clear, but the hypocrisy and potential condemnation of a few of the residents could have been made even more striking. The ultimate lesson here is that the sentiments contained within our everyday words may mean something in a world of soundbytes, but they are not always the most inclusive and productive ones.

— Ryan Fajardo

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