London Road

Oliva Colman, center, is one of the more recognizable faces in "London Road," a moBBC

‘London Road’
Rufus Norris
Stars: Olivia Colman, Clare Burt
Rating: NR
3 (out of 5) Globes

Movie musicals don’t come more eccentric than “London Road,” which is a) about the real-life murder of prostitutes, but b) not a grisly true crime story about the murderer or his victims a la, say, “Sweeney Todd.” Instead it’s about something far harder to dramatize: c) the complicated reactions of the townsfolk. On top of all that it’s d) a “verbatim” musical, which is to say every single sung line comes straight from transcripts of interviews. That includes all the “um”s and superfluous “yeah”s, which give the songs a peculiar rhythm and the film, playfulness only matched by its deep-seated seriousness.

And yet it’s a shock how smoothly “London Road” goes down, even as it forever defies easy consumption. There is no protagonist — just a street full of common people, ones who never thought they’d be at the center of a media storm, much less a musical. Elegantly adapted from Adam Cork and Alecky Blythe’s acclaimed show, it dramatizes and abstracts the fall-out from the real-life murders of five prostitutes in Ipswich a decade ago. The killings happen off-screen, and the culprit, one Steve Wright, is nicked before the half-hour mark. Instead we see how the denizens soldiered on as the epicenter of a (mostly English) media storm — that is, with a mix of horror, fascination and, in some cases, relief that a foul element has been removed, gruesomely thought it was.

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There’s a temptation to judge, and for good reason. Some of the real-world utterances find the people openly blaming immigrants or flirting with mob mentality. One woman (played by Oliva Colman) finds herself telling reporters that she’d like to shake Wright’s hand. We’re primed to scowl at her, but, as played by the always excellent Colman (“Peep Show,” “Twenty Twelve”), we see a disarming humanity. Watch the scene where she rambles on a couch during one of many symmetrically framed interview sessions that break up the bright and peppy musical numbers. At first she finds the confidence to compliment a killer on record. Then she keeps talking, as though to pull back, soften what sounds like a deeply amoral confession. Then her strength returns, and she says it again, then backs off once more, and then again.

It’s a fine piece of acting, and it fits right in with “London Road”’s tricky m.o. It wants to be brutally honest about a country that would, years after the play and not long after this movie was made, embrace something as isolationist and inhuman like Brexit. But it’s also interested in what happens when tragedy and its attendant media attention is drawn to people unused to it. The people aren’t monsters, but they are deeply flawed, and “London Road” seeks a balance between criticism and compassion, just as it mixes grim realism with splashy production numbers. The show and movie loves them, maybe because they’re not perfect.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge