A tale of two cities: London in modern film

As BFI Southbank launches its first retrospective of London on the big screen, we explore the modern city’s two distinct celluloid identities.

Nikki Baughan
Updated:

Snatch (2000)

Snatch (2000)

London is a place like no other. Its ancient past and evolving skyline have inspired filmmakers ever since R.W. Paul filmed Blackfriars Bridge in 1896. While the city has been making regular appearances on the big screen for more than a century, today’s filmmakers are taking particular advantage of its ever-changing horizon and increasingly eclectic inhabitants. Over the past two decades, modern London has developed two distinct celluloid identities; bleak urban badlands populated by those on the fringes of society, and land of opportunity where romance blossoms on every corner, and dreams really do come true.

While London has long been a stomping ground for grifters and gangsters (think 1950’s Night and the City or 1980’s The Long Good Friday), in 1998 Guy Ritchie reinvigorated the cockney crime caper subgenre with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Shot in various low-key locations including Bethnal Green and Shoreditch, it was a sucker punch of energy straight to the heart of British film.

Since then, Ritchie has used the capital’s streets as a roadmap for shady romps like Snatch (2000), which brought all-American boy Brad Pitt to an East End diamond hunt, and Revolver (2005). While these were variations on the Lock, Stock theme, Ritchie’s RocknRolla (2008) moved the action to the city’s lucrative real estate racket, using London’s coveted skyline as a front for high-level corruption.

Ritchie is by no means the only director to be lured to London’s dark side; fellow filmmakers like Gary Oldman (Nil By Mouth, 1997), Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, 2000), David Cronenberg (Eastern Promises, 2007) and Daniel Barber (Harry Brown, 2009) have all shone a light into the city’s shadowy enclaves. While many of these films offer a traditional view of the city’s underworld, others take their cues from its increasingly multicultural identity, narratives like Dirty Pretty Things (2002), Hummingbird (2012) and Lilting (2014) exploring the exploitation, loneliness and danger facing vulnerable immigrants to this overwhelming city.

Welcome to the Punch (2013)

Welcome to the Punch (2013)

Eran Creevy’s debut Shifty (2008) and follow-up Welcome to the Punch (2013) also present some brutal truths of London life, through the perspectives of a drug dealer (Riz Ahmed) and police detective (James McAvoy) respectively. Although on opposite sides of the law, both must navigate the city’s perilous underbelly, showcased by Creevy’s effective use of gritty locations including the Isle of Dogs and Greenwich Peninsula. Similarly, Danny Boyle’s Trance (2013) uses London’s faceless skyscrapers, anonymous tower blocks and subterranean nightclubs to mirror the fractured psyche of its protagonist (McAvoy).

Some 11 years before Trance, Boyle created one of the most iconic sequences shot in London, with the opening of 28 Days Later (2002). As Cillian Murphy’s Jim wanders aimlessly through Westminster in the aftermath of a virus outbreak, the spectacle of the deserted streets is devastating. Throughout the film, and its 2007 sequel 28 Weeks Later (directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo), London is by turns a decimated wasteland, terrifying hunting ground, sanctuary and prison; a crucial character in its own right.

Indeed, many genre filmmakers have envisioned London as melting pot of horror and despair. Reign of Fire (2002) saw ancient dragons engulf the city in flames, and it has also come under attack from zombies (Shaun of the Dead, 2004), aliens (Attack the Block, 2011) duelling gods (Thor: The Dark World, 2013) and numerous serial killers (From Hell (2001), Creep, (2004), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), Tony (2009)). Future London has also been a target for terror; in V For Vendetta (2006) it is ruled by a dictator and disrupted by a violent freedom fighter, and Children of Men (2006) imagines it as a post-apocalyptic, infertile hell-hole. It seems that rising property prices and overcrowding may be the least of our problems….

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

There are, however, filmmakers who prefer to walk on the sunnier side of the street, with Richard Curtis being perhaps our most prolific London optimist. His screenplay for 1994’s Four Weddings and a Funeral sees an American expat (Andie MacDowell) finding the city populated not by gangsters and sharks but bumbling charmers like Hugh Grant, who also manages to woo Julia Roberts in the Curtis-penned Notting Hill (1999). While Grant is more bounder than bumbler in Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004), Curtis’ screenplays again present London as overflowing with possibility. His saccharine directorial debut Love Actually (2003) sees festive London shot through with soft focus cheer, while About Time (2013), starring Domhnall Gleeson as a lovestruck time-traveler, uses its upmarket locations – Maida Vale, Notting Hill, South Bank – to suggest an environment of unlimited potential.

Curtis has paved the way for a plethora of London-set romantic comedies like this year’s Man Up, in which Simon Pegg and Lake Bell romp their way through a perfect, if accidental, first date. Geography be damned, the film presents Soho as a neon playground which can sate your every desire, with not a surly bouncer or sweaty tube ride in sight. Pegg is no stranger to pounding the city’s streets in search of love; in David Schwimmer’s 2007 directorial debut Run Fatboy Run, his character trains for the Nike River Run in order to win back his fiancée.

Just as with Notting Hill, Wimbledon (2004) uses its titular location as the backdrop for a love story, this time between two tennis stars played by Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst. Woody Allen’s Match Point (2005) shares the refined London locations (in this case Chelsea, Belgravia and Mayfair) and tennis world backdrop but is a far darker and stranger proposition.

Despite being the consummate New York filmmaker, Allen has developed something of a crush on London in recent years. He and Johansson returned for Scoop (2006), in which her journalism student frequents the city’s best spots in search of a story and, after a brief sojourn into the capital’s dark side for crime drama Cassandra’s Dream (2007), Allen was back above ground, in Bayswater, Notting Hill and Battersea, for 2010 romcom You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.

Paddington (2014)

Paddington (2014)

London’s increasingly diverse identity has also proven colourful inspiration for filmmakers like Sarah Gavron, whose Brick Lane (2007) is a moving and compassionate story of the impact of city life on a young Bangladeshi woman, and Destiny Ekaragha, whose Gone Too Far! (2013) is a funny and insightful look at how multicultural living affects the city’s impressionable youth. And away from the real world, London is limitless; in the Harry Potter franchise, for example, it is home to secret train station platforms and invisible Knight Buses, while Paul King’s Paddington (2014) transforms it into a magical wonderland through which it is entirely possible to romp with childlike abandon. 

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