London in Film

Setting a movie in the British capital might be as easy as sticking a red bus in the background, but certain films have made London centre stage..

There are certain things that make London stand out from other cities; the double decker buses, the Victorian terraced houses, the (now scarce) red phone boxes, the drizzle… Setting a movie in the British capital might be as easy as sticking a red bus in the background, but certain films have made London as much a part of the plotline as any of the leading roles. Here, in no particular order, are the movies where London has been portrayed at its best, worst and most lifelike.

Guns of... Hackney
The spate of crime thrillers started by Guy Ritchie after the success of Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and swiftly followed by Snatch, Layer Cake, Gangster No. 1 and a plethora of other heist movies are hardly representative of London, but they did feature Cockney gangsters to darkly comic effect and to the utter thrill of our Transatlantic friends. Many were disappointed when, upon taking a walk down Columbia Road they encountered well-heeled couples perusing the flower market or locals in designer sports gear heading for a jog around Victoria Park rather than criminals in full flight, dropping diamonds out of a rucksack as they sped away in a car with blacked out windows, but can you imagine Vinnie Jones & Co going about their business in any other neighbourhood?

Oh, the Horror
Who can forget the eerie scene in 28 Days Later when the protagonist leaves hospital to find a deserted Westminster Bridge with overturned buses and rubble piling up on the surrounding streets? Danny Boyle’s frighteningly realistic 2002 film showed us what London might look like in the event of a zombie takeover - there go decades of urban gentrification. Three years later Creep was released, a British horror film about a woman who falls asleep on the tube and becomes trapped in the station after it closes. She then spends the night trying to find her way out while avoiding the advances of a deformed creature that lives in one of the tunnels and seems to have a penchant for killing and eating unsuspecting members of staff. For the trainspotters amongst you, much of the action takes place at Charing Cross station and the tunnels around the now disused Aldwych station.
Days Gone By
The underground is given a far more romantic spin in The Wings of the Dove, Iain Softley’s 1997 portrait of a doomed love affair in Edwardian London, a gracefully tragic film that captures the stifled airs and graces of the turn of the century, when wealthy Helena Bonham Carter is forbidden from marrying her impoverished journalist lover. Victorian-era London has also given filmmakers plenty of inspiration, often where the horror genre is concerned, from Tim Burton’s recent musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to From Hell, the 2001 film about the Jack the Ripper murders, however in the latter case 19th century East London was recreated and filmed in Prague, presumably for economic purposes.

Love Is All Around
The rom coms directed by Richard Curtis have been resounding box office smashes around the world. Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually are set in Hampstead, Notting Hill and around Canary Wharf and Trafalgar Square respectively; all follow the lives of upper middle class groups of friends who bumble their way through their love affairs, and they all feature Hugh Grant as himself. Exports like these almost make you want to forgive the visitors who still believe the East End is full of crooks and the inhabitants of West London sip tea with their pinkie sticking out while sporting a top hat.
Life or Something Like It
Where Curtis has made a career out of light romantic movies, Mike Leigh has forged his reputation making kitchen sink dramas, at times heartwarming, at other times making for uncomfortable viewing. Vera Drake’s 1950s back street abortionist and the family dramas depicted in Secrets and Lies portray a very different London to Curtis’ twee storylines. More recently, gritty London featured in Shane Meadow’s Somers Town, a film about two teenage friends set around Purchese Street, near the newly renovated St. Pancras International station, the development of which is bound to greatly gentrify the area and has already encouraged the construction of dozens of luxury flats. Perhaps Curtis will make a film here in another decade or so.

Boys Keep Swinging
No list of films about the capital would be complete without Blow Up, the film that depicted Swinging 60s London in all its glory and inevitable vacuity. David Hemmings starred as photographer du jour David Bailey, and Antonioni’s movie showed him attempting to find an escape route of sorts from the parties, flashbulbs and wannabe models throwing themselves at him. Less successful was Absolute Beginners, the musical set in the late 50s with David Bowie and a very young Patsy Kensit in leading roles. The themes that inspired the film (mostly deriving from the book it was based on) revolve around the racial tensions at the time of the first wave of Caribbean immigrants and the ensuing Notting Hill riots, however the movie ended up being a mish-mash of pseudo-politics and 80s music. That hasn’t stopped it from becoming a cult success however, a bit like Sid and Nancy, which follows the heroin-addicted Sex Pistol Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungeon at the height of the punk movement, and Quadrophenia, the movie about mods and rockers based on The Who’s rock opera of the same name.


Author: Leila Hawkins