As London prepares for the opening of the Olympic Games, the eyes of the world will be locked on the UK’s capital city for 16 days.
London has, of course, always been the focus of attention – especially in cinema – and it has rivalled New York, Los Angeles, Paris and Rome as a great filmmaking city.
But if you were to choose 10 movies that have given moviegoers a taste of the city Benjamin Disraeli once described as a “Modern Babylon”, what would they be?
GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1946)
No list of films set in London would be complete without including one based on a novel by its greatest writer, Charles Dickens.
This David Lean adaptation is without a doubt the finest, with John Mills charismatic in the lead role as the adult version of Pip, the orphan who rises up the social ranks with the help of an unknown benefactor.
Lean’s handsome movie boasts excellent performances from Alec Guinness as Herbert Pocket, Jean Simmons and Valerie Hobson as the child and adult versions of Estella, Martita Hunt as the eccentric Miss Havisham, Francis L Sullivan as her lawyer, Jaggers and Finlay Currie as the convict, Abel Magwitch.
The film has many atmospheric set pieces (thanks to Guy Green’s Oscar winning cinematography) with the initial terrifying encounter between young Pip and Magwitch in a churchyard and the death masks hanging on the wall of Mr Jagger’s office lingering long in the memory. Lean would follow it up in 1948 with another excellent adaptation of a Dickens novel, Oliver Twist.
PASSPORT TO PIMLICO (1949)
Produced by Michael Balcon and directed by Henry Cornelius, this quirky 1949 Ealing Studios satire has grown in stature over the years.
The movie begins with children accidentally setting off a wartime bomb. This leads to the discovery of a treasure trove containing an ancient parchment which reveals that the London district of Pimlico was once part of the Duchy of Burgundy and the claim has not been revoked.
As local residents come to terms with their new nationality and the British Government negotiates with the area’s new ruling authority, Pimlico is flooded with shoppers, entrepreneurs and shysters as the rest of London realises that it is not subject to post-war rationing. As negotiations become frayed, the Government seals Pimlico off from the rest of the city.
With its bumbling civil servants and off the wall humour, Cornelius’s film scores with a charming cast that includes Stanley Holloway as the genial grocer Arthur Pembleton, Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as the diplomats who search for a resolution and a typically batty performance from Margaret Rutherford as the Professor who authenticates the parchment that leads to Pimlico separating from the rest of the UK.
THE LADYKILLERS (1955)
With his performances in ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’, ‘Great Expectations’, ‘Oliver Twist’ and The Lavender Hill Mob’, Alec Guinness established himself as one of British cinema’s most versatile actors – switching effortlessly from comedy to more serious material.
Not averse to changing his appearance for a role, he donned outrageous false teeth in Alexander Mackendrick’s dark Ealing comedy about a criminal gang who pose as musicians in a London bedsit which Guinness’s Professor Marcus is renting.
Katie Johnson is terrific as the eccentric old lady, Mrs Wilberforce who runs the house and who soon realises the gang, which includes Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom, has carried out a robbery.
With a BAFTA wining screenplay from William Rose, it was later remade rather unconvincingly in 2004 by the Coen Brothers with Tom Hanks in the Guinness role and the action relocated to Mississippi. It was also recently revived as a play in the west End adapted by ‘Fr Ted’ writer, Graham Linehan and ‘The Thick of It’s’ Peter Capaldi in the Professor Marcus role.
As youth culture and sexual liberation kicked in in the Swinging Sixties, director Lewis Gilbert brought to the big screen Bill Naughton’s cautionary tale about a womanising Cockney.
Also written by Naughton for the cinema, Michael Caine deservedly earned an Oscar nomination for his performance as Alfie, a cheeky chappie who treats women so badly he refers to them as “it” and “they”. Casually flitting in and out of his conquests’ lives, he leaves a trail of destruction behind him but by the end of the film cuts a tragic figure as he comes to realise how empty his own life is.
While Gilbert’s movie is very much dominated by Caine and his breaking down of the fourth wall through his direct monologues to camera, there are strong supporting performances too from the women he woos – Millicent Martin, Vivien Merchant, Julia Foster, Jane Asher and especially, Shelley Winters.
The film was given a 21st century reboot with Jude Law in the title role in a 2004 remake but it spectacularly failed to match the heights of Gilbert’s film.
THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY (1979)
John MacKenzie’s gangland thriller has become something of a cult classic and was very much of its time.
With Margaret Thatcher storming into Downing Street and Britain living in fear of IRA bombing campaigns, Bob Hoskins plays a cocky East End gangster, Harold Shand who is desperate to go legit as a businessman with the help of dodgy American Mafia money.
However when the IRA man starts to unravel his plans over the course of a weekend and attacks his criminal empire, it sends Harold into a tailspin and he becomes jittery, thuggish and increasingly paranoid.
Hoskins turns in a stunning breakthrough performance as Shand while Helen Mirren impresses as his wife Victoria, as does Eddie Constantine as a Mafia representative and Belfast’s Derek Thompson (before he became Charlie in the BBC’s hospital soap ‘Casualty’) as Shand’s right hand man.
MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE (1985)
Working from a screenplay by Hanif Kureshi, Stephen Frears concocted a potent mix of racial, sexual and actual politics in this movie about a gay affair between a young Pakistani man and a white punk.
Daniel Day Lewis announced himself as a major star to be reckoned with as Johnny who, at the start of the film, has fallen in with a gang of white extremists but then goes to work for and has an affair with his old friend Omar (Gordon Warnecke) who is trying to turn a rundown laundrette into a profitable business for his uncle.
Saeed Jaffrey impresses as Uncle Nasser, the film’s most obviously Thatcherite character – an entrepreneur and a seemingly respectable member of the Pakistani community who in reality has a white mistress, Rachel (astutely played by Shirley Anne Field).
The possibility of racially motivated violence is never too far away in this scathing critique of Thatcher’s Britain which secured Kureshi an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay and Frears his first real international hit.
HOPE AND GLORY (1987)
Told through the eyes of a 10 year old boy, John Boorman’s autobiographical movie about growing up in suburban wartime London is the English equivalent of Woody Allen’s comedy ‘Radio Days’.
Sebastian Rice Edwards is delightful as Billy Rowan who watches his father Clive (David Hayman) volunteer for the Army and is initially thrilled by the Nazi air raids.
Sarah Miles turns in one of the best performances of her career as the family matriarch, Grace and there are delicious turns too from Sammi Davis as Billy’s sister Dawn, who falls for the charms of a Canadian soldier, and Ian Bannen as his eccentric, cricket loving grandad.
Impressively captured onscreen by cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, Boorman’s movie has plenty to recommend it including loads of belly laughs – especially in the sequence where Billy discovers his school has been bombed.
LIFE IS SWEET (1991)
Just as it is impossible to come up with a list of London films that doesn’t include a Dickens adaptation, it would be a crime to leave out a movie by Mike Leigh.
‘Secrets and Lies’ might be his best known and best loved film but the movie that preceded it about the adventures of a north London family is also a gem. Jim Broadbent plays Andy, a head chef in a industrial kitchen, who is married to the sweet natured Wendy (Alison Steadman) and has two twin daughters, the tomboyish and sensible plumber Natalie (Claire Skinner) and the bitter and bullimic unemployed Nicola (Jane Horrocks).
Rounding out the excellent ensemble cast are David Thewlis as Nicola’s unnamed boyfriend, Stephen Rea as a man on the make called Patsy who flogs Andy a fast food van and Timothy Spall’s cocky and very gauche Aubrey.
Like all of Leigh’s best comedies, the story is cleverly improvised and full of heart – not least when its celebrating or commiserating with its characters after their minor successes and failures.
ABOUT A BOY (2002)
Hugh Grant may have carved out a successful comedic career as Richard Curtis’s muse but he has never been better than in American brothers, Chris and Paul Weitz’s adaptation of Nick Hornby’s popular novel.
Grant is ideally cast as Will Freeman, a lazy and unapologetic bachelor living off the proceeds of his father’s hit Christmas single and desperate to avoid any meaningful relationship. Then, in an unexpected turn of events, he stumbles into the life of Nicholas Hoult’s eccentric 12 year old Marcus Brewer.
Hoult and Grant make an engaging double act as their characters bond but there are also strong supporting performances from Toni Collette as Marcus’s suicidal hippy mother Fiona, Victoria Smurfit as her best friend Suzie and Rachel Weisz as Rachel, the woman who Will eventually falls for.
A film very much belonging to Tony Blair’s Cool Britannia era, its Academy Award nominated screenplay is light years away from the crude humour of the Weitz brothers’ breakthrough comedy ‘American Pie’.
28 DAYS LATER (2002)
As the world eagerly awaits Oscar winning director Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the Olympic Games, it is worth recalling his jaw dropping apocalyptic vision of a London ravaged by zombies.
Cork’s Cillian Murphy plays Jim who wakes up from a coma in St Thomas’s Hospital to find London is deserted 28 days after animal rights activists accidentally unleashed a zombie virus on the UK during a raid on a laboratory. In a memorable set of images, Jim wanders in disbelief through a deserted Piccadilly Circus and Westminster Bridge.
It isn’t long before he encounters zombies and then survivors in the form of Naomie Harris’s Selena and Noah Huntley’s Mark, then Brendan Gleeson’s Frank and his teenage daughter, Hannah played by Megan Burns and finally soldiers led by Christopher Eccleston’s Major Henry West.
Brilliantly written by Alex Garland, impressively shot by Anthony Dod Mantle and slickly edited by Chris Gill, Boyle’s movie is filled with dread and offers an alternative vision of Blair’s Britain – a Britain where the authorities cannot be trusted. The movie spawned a thrilling sequel ’28 Weeks Later’ starring Robert Carlyle, Catherine McCormack and Jeremy Renner and directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo.