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12 Of Our Favorite London-Set Movies To Get You Through The Olympics

12 Of Our Favorite London-Set Movies To Get You Through The Olympics

Photo courtesy of the beautiful images found at London Snap.

Tonight, the 2012 Summer Olympics will kick off in London, and while our tolerance for sporting events is relatively low, we’re a bit excited. In part, it’s because it’s taking place in the city where this writer was born, raised and still lives, and in part it’s because the opening ceremony was masterminded by British filmmaker Danny Boyle, the man behind films like “Trainspotting” and “Slumdog Millionaire.”

It promises to be an impressive spectacle, but after that, what’s a film fan to do? So, to commemorate the opening of the games, and partly as an antidote to them, we’ve assembled a mini film festival of 12 (see what we did?) of our favorite London-based movies. Not ones that merely use the city as a picture-postcard backdrop (Woody Allen, we’re looking at you…) but those that really capture the feel of the city we know so well.

So if you’re elsewhere in the world, you can get in on the Olympic spirit without watching a single televised archery event by putting on a selection of the films below. And if you’re in London for the games, or at any time in the future, we’ve also put together a little tourist trail of locations from our chosen films. Check them out below. And if we’ve missed your favorite London-set movies, feel free to fight their corner in the comments section below.

“Oliver Twist” (1948)
One of the most oft-filmed tales in British cinema, Charles Dickens‘ “Oliver Twist” has never been better adapted than in David Lean‘s 1948 version (with musical take “Oliver!” and Roman Polanski‘s recent one the best known otherwise). The director made his first masterpiece with another Dickens tale, “Great Expectations,” two years before, and while this can’t quite match it (principally because the source material isn’t as good), it’s in many ways more Dickensian, in part because of its depiction of the workhouses and streets of Victorian London so often associated with the author, which are likely still influential not just on retellings of this tale, but on all cinematic looks at London of the 1800s. It looks stunning, with an almost Expressionist influence, thanks to DoP Guy Green, and the acting (including future pop star Anthony Newley as the Artful Dodger) is strong across the board, not least from Alec Guinness, unrecognizable as Fagin. His performance attracted criticism as anti-Semitic at the time; the film wasn’t released until the U.S until 1951 as a result, and even then only heavily cut. But it’s much less of a caricature than Dickens’ original text, and seeing as the film was banned in Egypt for making Fagin too sympathetic, one suspects they were doing something right. That controversy aside, Lean still tells the story in as sleek and propulsive a manner as anyone ever has, and gives a definitive portrait of London in the process.
Tourist Trail: In Dickens’ novel, Fagin’s hang-out is in Saffron Hill, Farringdon. Obviously changed since the book was published, it’s now full of offices for the most part, but there’s a wealth of good restaurants and bars nearby if you do end up in the area.

“It Always Rains On Sunday” (1947)
After this summer, Londoners will know that it doesn’t just always rain on Sunday, it always rains on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday too. But it’s nothing compared to the constant sheet of rain that accompanies the events of Robert Hamer‘s semi-forgotten classic, one of the best British films of its period, and perhaps the most convincing example of the London noir picture. Rose (the excellently-named Googie Withers) is an ordinary woman in Bethnal Green — not a stone’s throw from where the Olympic Stadium is now — not long married to an older man  (Edward Chapman) with two teenage daughters, and struggling to get through the day in a post-war Britain still suffering from rationing. It’s all upended one Sunday when her first and truest love Tommy (John McCallum) appears after breaking out of prison. Still in love with him, she hides him away, but the pressure gets greater and greater as the police and press close in, leading to tragic consequences for all. What’s most impressive about the film is the way that Hamer (who’d made his Ealing directorial debut with a segment of classic portmanteau horror “Dead Of Night,” and would next go on to helm the comedy classic “Kind Hearts & Coronets“) keeps the tension impossibly taut, even while expanding the world of the film wider and wider, bringing in more and more characters to paint a picture not just of this one family, but of the East End as well. It’s surprisingly realistic and uncompromising too, given the time period, and formally forward-looking, with flashbacks and a complex narrative structure. Of all the films on this list, we’d wager that this is the one you haven’t seen, which is an awful shame, but the Olympics seems as good an excuse as any to take another look.
Tourist Trail: The Bethnal Green area in which the film was set didn’t change for much of the 20th century, although like much of East London, it’s become something of a hipster hang-out of late. Our recommended stop would be the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, which, for the most part, is a traditional meeting and drinking spot that probably hasn’t changed much since the film’s day, although it now hosts club nights and film screenings in the evening, as well as hosting the cutting-edge comedy club Deansway’s in the basement.

“Passport To Pimlico” (1949)
A sort of comic flipside to the same kind of post-Blitz world seen in “It Always Rains On Sunday,” Ealing’s “Passport To Pimlico” has the kind of high concept that would make Hollywood executives today pull a muscle in the rush to reach for the checkbooks. A leftover bomb detonates in Pimlico (an area of central London next to Westminster), revealing a buried cellar full of treasure, along with a parchment that reveals that the land and the spoils belongs to the residents, under the Duke of Burgundy. As Burgundy no longer exists, Pimlico essentially becomes an independent nation within London, and one that isn’t subject to the same laws and rationing as the rest of Britain. This causes the government to become increasingly infuriated with the new duchy, breaking off relations, and cutting supplies and power. All ends happily, but it’s a deceptively sharp and politically-minded film, dressed up as light comedy, with strong parallels to the then-current Berlin Blockade, and resonates with the bombardment of London that was only a few years gone, its scars still visible on the locations (actually shot in Lambeth, rather than Pimlico). Which is not to say that it’s dull or somber; it remains crowd-pleasing and genuinely funny, even if one suspects it played even better at the time. As far as films about London and Londoners go, it’s hard to find something more heartwarming or satisfying than this one. No one’s tried to remake it yet, but if it does ever have to happen, Joe Cornish is the man for the job.
Tourist Trail: Almost totally rebuilt and regenerated since the days of the film (aside from the impressive Regency-era houses that survived the bombings), Pimlico is a principally residential area, and as such isn’t likely to be on many tourist’s maps. If you are in the area, the Tate Britain, one of the best galleries in the city, is your best bet; it’s home to an exhibition on “London” director Patrick Keiller at present. Alternatively, the Queen Mother Sports Centre is this writer’s local gym, so you could come spot for us or something.

“Repulsion” (1965)
Polanski’s second film outside Poland, the director captured the alienation of a big city like London like the recent ex-pat that he was at the time. Often cited as a twisted inversion of Alfred Hitchcock‘s “Psycho,” “Repulsion” is an uncanny little shocker and the first film in Polanski’s so-called “apartment trilogy” (the later films being “The Tenant” and “Rosemary’s Baby“), which many point to as the most crucial cluster in the filmmaker’s oeuvre. Here, the young, virginal Carole (played, with saucer eyes and sincerity, by a breathtaking Catherine Deneuve) is a Belgian immigrant, alone in the city and living in a Kensington flat, who works at a London nail salon, but slowly becomes more isolated and alone, to the point of becoming unhinged. Polanski, using stark black-and-white photography a half-decade after “Psycho,” does a wonderful job of placing us in Deneuve’s psychological state, alternating calm moments with fits of paranoia, rage, fear, and outright hallucination (like the iconic sequence when the walls of her cramped apartment grow arms that grab at her). And if that doesn’t sway you, maybe the original tagline from the grabby poster will: “The nightmare world of a virgin’s dreams becomes the screen’s shocking reality!” (Exclamation point theirs.) The film somehow found its way into the public domain dumping ground, and for a while you could only see it via dodgy DVD transfers, but thankfully those Criterion chaps came through and rescued it.
Tourist Trail: You can go and see Carole’s apartment, from the outside at least; it’s located at Kensington Mansions on Trebivor Road in Earl’s Court. Perhaps more importantly, you can still go get your nails done at the beauty parlor in which she worked in the film: it’s called Thurloe’s, on Thurloe Place in South Kensington. 

“Blow-Up” (1966)
Cities are always documented by best by outsiders, so it’s not surprising that the most vital looks at Swinging Sixties London, the time when the city was the very center of the world, came from non-natives, whether it was Joseph Losey‘s “Modesty Blaise”  or Richard Lester‘s “The Knack… And How To Get It.” But most seminal of all is undoubtedly Michelangelo Antonioni‘s formally playful anti-thriller “Blow-Up.” With a central character inspired by Carnaby St. icon David Bailey, and cameos from Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck among others, it’s certainly an icon of its time, but it’s also an almost impossibly innovative and brilliant film away from all of that. The owl-eyebrowed David Hemmings plays Thomas, a fashion photographer who takes a photo of a woman and her lover, only to realize he might have accidentally captured evidence of a murder. The plotting, such as it is, is thin, but due to the film’s existential ennui, epitomized most by the brilliant ending, it never really goes anywhere. Antonioni might be appropriating the imagery of the time, and even inventing a sort of visual language to match it, but he’s never enamored by swinging London (the director was, after all, well into his 50s when it was made), almost always painting it as a bleak and deeply unhappy place. Only when Thomas has his camera in his hands is he truly alive. It’s impossible to underestimate the influence of “Blow-Up;” it became a monster hit, bringing down the Production Code, and causing the creation of the MPAA in the process, and perhaps more importantly, led the way for the European influence on Hollywood, from “Bonnie & Clyde” to serving as a direct inspiration for films like “The Conversation” and “Blow Out.
Tourist Trail: “Blow-Up” shot all over London, but Thomas’ photography studio was leased from real-life snapper Jon Cowan for interiors and exteriors. It’s at 39 Princes Place in Holland Park and is now an office.

“Performance” (1968)
As controversial as it was, “Blow-Up” was at least mostly well-regarded at the time. But the other great look at the seedy side of the Swinging Sixties, Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg‘s “Performance,” wasn’t so fortunate. Backers Warner Bros. hated it (the wife of an executive reportedly vomited at a test screening), allegedly considered having the negative destroyed, and took two years to release the film. And even when the movie did hit theaters, many critics loathed it — Richard Schickel called it “completely worthless.” Fortunately, cinephiles have long since come to its rescue, and the film is often named among one of the best ever, though we wouldn’t quite go that far as it’s dramatically uneven, and somewhat indulgent in places. But Roeg (making his directorial debut after a decade of work as a DoP for the likes of David Lean and Francois Truffaut) and co-director Donald Cammell use the plot — which involves an East End gangster (James Fox, who retired from acting for a decade after the film was released) who falls under the influence of a reclusive rock star (Mick Jagger) — as the excuse for a classic head-fuck, creating a blurring of identity that comes across as a sort of testosterone-heavy version of persona. Indeed, with Fox representing the East, and Jagger and his Notting Hill mansion the West, their conflict and curious platonic love affair serves as a nice metaphor for the changing nature of the city at the time. Despite their relative inexperience behind the camera, Cammell and Roeg are in absolute command of the form (that Cammell’s career never truly took off before his suicide in 1996 is one of cinema’s great tragedies, particularly given that he was almost entirely responsible for cutting the film), and it makes a hell of a double bill with “Blow-Up,” even if you’re not indulging in the same substances as the characters.  
Tourist Trail: Turner’s den of iniquity is located in Powis Square in Notting Hill. The area’s handily close to plenty of other film locations, including the title character of “Alfie“‘s flat, at 29 St. Stephen’s Gardens, and the front door of Hugh Grant‘s character in “Notting Hill” at 280 Westbourne Park Road (which was actually Richard Curtis‘ house, and is now black, rather than blue).

“Frenzy” (1972)
As a Leytonstone-born boy (only a couple of tube stops from the Olympic site), Hitchcock’s early work, particularly the likes of “The Lodger” and “Sabotage,” are fine documents of London. But his most enjoyable and gripping portrait of the city might come with his first shoot in London for over three decades, in what is certainly the best of his late-period films, “Frenzy.” Based on the novel “Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square,” with a screenplay by “Sleuth” writer Anthony Shaffer, it stars Jon Finch (just off playing “Macbeth” for Polanski) as Richard Blaney, who comes under suspicion for a series of sex murders when his ex-wife and girlfriend become victims, despite discovering that the real culprit is his friend Rusk (Barry Foster, in a part turned down by Michael Caine). It’s significantly darker and nastier than much of the director’s work (it feels almost like the direct inspiration for Brian DePalma‘s entire career), with a number of typically gripping sequences, not least the one in which Rusk tries to retrieve evidence from the body of Blaney’s girlfriend, who lies in a sack of potatoes in the back of a moving lorry. And his feel for the city of his birth clearly never left him in his absence: this is a London film through and through, opening with a helicopter shot of Tower Bridge, and with of the film set in and around the fruit and vegetable market in Covent Garden, where Hitch’s father had been a merchant, and which the director wanted to capture on screen before it was redeveloped the next year.
Tourist Trail: The market’s no longer in the same place — it’s moved, confusingly, south of the river, to the decidedly less picturesque Battersea — but there’s still plenty to find in Covent Garden itself. We particularly recommend burger joint Meat Market. If you’re location-hunting, though, you can pop in for a pint at the nearby pub Nell Of Old Drury’s, where one scene is set.

“The Long Good Friday” (1980)
The last decade-and-a-half have seen a wealth of London-set gangster movies, but aside from a small handful (Guy Ritchie‘s first couple of films have their charms, and Paul McGuigan‘s “Gangster No. 1” is underrated), most have been pretty dire. Thus, the high watermark still remains John Mackenzie‘s terrific 1980 film “The Long Good Friday.” Bob Hoskins plays Harold Shand, a London gangster sitting at the top of the tree, and hoping to move into legitimate territory with a huge property development in the Docklands era of East London, in the hope that it might serve as the site for a future Olympics (ooh, prescient). But he’s under attack from an unknown enemy (the IRA, it would seem), causing the U.S. Mafia (led by Eddie Constantine, the star of Godard’s “Alphaville“!) to pull out of the agreement, leaving Harold desperate to salvage his deal. It’s firmly a film that sums up its era — timed perfectly to the arrival of Margaret Thatcher in government, with Harold as the kind of figure who would have flourished under her, and its tie to the real-life redevelopment of the Docklands serves as a neat time capsule for a London in transition. But it’s also simply a gripping thriller, with a star-making performance from Hoskins (and Helen Mirren, as his lover), showing both the peaceful, honorable man Shand wants to be, and the psychotic thug that lies underneath. His final scene, as he’s confronted by an IRA hitman (Pierce Brosnan, in his first screen role) is something of an acting masterclass.
Tourist Trail: To see the would-be fruits of what Howard was trying to sow, you can pop down to Docklands itself, which isn’t an Olympic site, but is instead a major business center. It’s also home to Canary Wharf, until recently London’s tallest building. You can also see where his boat was moored, in St. Katharine’s Docks, near Tower Bridge.

“An American Werewolf In London” (1981)
Most of the films here involve Londoners in London, but it’s not surprising that the seminal tourists’s-eye-view of the city comes from an American movie, from an American director. What might be more surprising is that it comes in the shape of a horror-comedy with John Landis‘ “An American Werewolf In London,” probably still the finest example of the genre. The film doesn’t start in London, but actually in the Yorkshire moores, where college students David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) ignore the warning of locals to “beware the moon,” and are attacked by a vicious creature. Jack is killed, but David survives, taken to London, and, as he falls in love with his beautiful nurse (Jenny Agutter), starts to have terrible visions and hallucinations, not least visits from a decaying, torn-up Jack, who warns him that he’s been turned into a werewolf, and can only kill himself to break the curse. He is, as the title might give away, entirely correct, and the result is a bonafide classic that provides some big laughs without ever sacrificing drama or character integrity, leading to a film with shocks both broad and silly (the Nazi zombie dream) and genuinely unnerving (that still-stunning transformation sequence, the best ever put on screen). And Landis makes great use of the city, from a tense-as-anything stalking sequence in the Tottenham Court Road tube station, to David waking up at London Zoo after a spree. Best of all is the final carnage outside tourist hot-spot Piccadilly Circus, a gory, brilliantly orchestrated sequence in the center of the city that must have been an absolute nightmare to capture. Fortunately, it was entirely worth it…
Tourist Trail: London Zoo‘s always worth the trip (particularly with their occasional late nights), although you’re unlikely to see a naked David Naughton while you’re there. Otherwise, you can pop down to Piccadilly Circus to see the sight of David’s last stand, although if there ever were any porno theaters there, they’re long gone. 

“Naked” (1993)
Although born in Hertfordshire, and raised in Salford (next to Manchester), Mike Leigh has, over the past forty-odd years, become the definitive London filmmaker — what Woody Allen is to New York, or Fellini to Rome. As such, we could have filled this entire list with his films, from “Meantime” to his most recent feature “Another Year” (and indeed, he was picked, alongside Lynne Ramsay and Asif Kapadia, among others, to direct one of four Olympic short films — U.K. viewers can watch his entry, “A Running Jump,” here). But if we had to pick just one, it would be one of his less rose-tinted looks at the city, in the shape of 1993’s “Naked.” The protagonist, like Leigh, is a displaced Mancunian, in this case Johnny (an astonishing performance from David Thewlis), who escapes from the North after what appears to be a rape to stay with a former girlfriend (Lesley Sharp). Smart as a whip, but nihilistic, nasty and self destructive, he wanders the streets of London espousing his views to anyone who’ll listen. If “The Long Good Friday” marked the start of the Thatcher era, “Naked” marks the end, and Thewlis, as the representative of the underclass, is balanced by Greg Cruttwell, as Sharp’s psychotic yuppie landlord, a true child of Thatcher. We always find Leigh’s gentle comedies of manners to be most effective when they have real edge to them, whether the skinheads of “Meantime,” the back-street abortions of “Vera Drake” or even Eddie Marsan‘s short-fuse cab driver in “Happy-Go-Lucky,” and “Naked” is by some distance his darkest and most brutal worldview, particularly in its depiction of the alienating streets of the big city, even if there’s a strange dignity and pathos to Johnny’s rantings (again, a testimony to Thewlis’ performance as much as anything else). It’s not a tourist’s-eye-view of London as such, but one that still rings true nearly twenty years on.
Tourist Trail: Louise’s flat is located on Shacklewell Lane in Dalston, East London, which has changed a good deal since the film shot; once principally home to the Turkish community of London, it’s become a sanctuary for artists and hipsters priced out of nearby Shoreditch. Mangal Ocakbasi has the best Turkish food we’ve ever had, and for the archetypal Dalston night out, head to Efes Snooker Club, where you can drink cheep beer cans, play pool and listen to terrible R&B until the wee hours. The Rio is one of the best independent cinemas in London too, particularly their Sunday double bills.

“Dirty Pretty Things” (2002)
London, like all the great cities of the world, is a melting pot of different nationalities and cultures, and few films capture the reality of the immigrant experience in London better than Stephen Frears‘ “Dirty Pretty Things,” which stands a decade on as one of the very best films from the chameleonic British director, and a fine portrait of the city in the 21st century. The film stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, in a breakout role, as Okwe, an illegal immigrant from Nigeria, who, despite having been a doctor at home, has to work both as a cab driver and at the front desk of a seedy hotel to make ends meet. He strikes up a friendship, which could be something more, with a new Turkish immigrant, Senay (Audrey Tautou, in a post-“Amelie” part that let her show her impressive range), but their problems are accelerated when Okwe finds a human heart in a toilet; surplus, as it turns out, from an illegal organs trade run by the hotel’s manager, Juan (a chilling Sergi Lopez, of “With A Friend Like Harry” and “Pan’s Labyrinth“). The script, like writer Steven Knight‘s other London-set tale “Eastern Promises,” suffers from being a little too neat and conventional in its adherence to the thriller template in places, but it’s also entirely refreshing in its view of an underbelly of London life that many inhabitants would rather ignore. It also features Frears at the top of this game, and a string of terrific performances, from Okwe’s noble, but flawed, hero and Lopez’s chilling villain to less prominent characters like prostitute Juliette (Sophie Okonedo) and mortuary worker Guo Yi (Benedict Wong). As Ejiofor’s star continues to rise, it’s certainly worth having a look if you missed it the first time around.
Tourist Trail: Okwe and Senay’s flat is located in Dalston, and the sweatshop where she finds work is down in Greenwich, but the film’s most prominent location, the fictional Baltic Hotel, shot its exteriors at 4 Whitehall Court, near Charing Cross station.

Attack The Block” (2011)
And to close off, a film that’s very recent, but one that in many ways owes a debt to much of the great cinema of London. The ragtag bunch of teen criminals and their own perma-stoned Fagin (Nick Frost) might have a little more edge than The Artful Dodger and co, but still owe a good deal to “Oliver Twist,” while the way in which they come together with middle-class nurse Sam (Jodie Whittaker) and posh boy Brewis (Luke Treadaway) to battle an alien invasion is reminiscent of the pull-together Blitz spirit of something like “Passport To Pimlico.” And the way that the tone marries social realism with horror-comedy certainly owes a debt to “An American Werewolf In London.” The film’s message — that we should stop demonizing our youth, even in their indiscretions — gained added relevance in last summer’s riots, but that aside, it’s still a raucously entertaining film that deservedly made director Joe Cornish one of the most hotly sought-after filmmakers around, and that fact makes us think that, as the years go on, its place among the other films here will be cemented more and more.
Tourist Trail: The film shot all over Joe Cornish’s old stomping ground of South London, with locations in Brixton and Peckham, among others, while the opening sequence was filmed by Oval tube station. For us, the most memorable location is the expansive Heygate Estate, where much of the bike chase was filmed. But that’s possibly because we used to live next door to it. The estate, which also served as a location for films like “Harry Brown” and Clint Eastwood‘s “Hereafter,” is in the process of being demolished, so hurry along if you want to see it. The area, Elephant & Castle, was also the birthplace of Charlie Chaplin and Michael Caine, so it’s steeped in film history as it is.

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