10 great films about Brits abroad

With summer holiday season upon us and millions of Brits packing their bags for some sunshine overseas, what are some of the best movies about British expats and holidaymakers?

Samuel Wigley
Updated:

Sexy Beast (2000)

Sexy Beast (2000)

Stats tell us that there are currently more than five million British-born people living overseas, within a total of over 13 million British nationals. Then there are the many more millions of us who are heading abroad on holiday this summer, temporarily ballooning the size of the British diaspora.

Year round, outside of the UK, you’re most likely to bump into a Briton in Hong Kong or Australia, which are each home to a million British residents and more, or France, which receives 17 million British visits a year. But, come holiday season, it’s Spain that bears the British brunt; year after year, it remains the UK’s most popular holiday destination. In 1954, travellers on one of the first ever package holidays flew from London to Spain’s Costa Brava, and we’ve kept going back ever since.

The package holiday drove the rise of the foreign vacation for newly affluent families and couples during the economic boom of the postwar era. Later, teenagers and young adults made partying on the Med, or gap years in far-flung locations, a de rigueur rite of passage. With that, the British taste for excess and hedonism in the sunshine has given the very phrase ‘Brits abroad’ a nasty stigma.

At the pictures, the Briton abroad is a varied beast. For every gregarious reveller, there are protagonists who are flustered, overwhelmed or put off balance by the experience of foreign climes. And for every Little Englander bristling at the way things are done in their exotic surroundings, there are those characters for whom trips abroad provide an essential escape from their own past and identity.

The kids are breaking up, our flights are booked, but there’s still time for some holiday season viewing. These are some of the finest films about British expats and holidaymakers at large.

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Director Alfred Hitchcock

“What a country! I don’t wonder they have revolutions.” Poor old English duffers Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne) are stranded in their mountainside hotel in the fictional nation of Bandrika, where news of the test match back in Manchester is as scarce as the supper supplies that have dwindled before their sitting.

“Bandrika is one of Europe’s few undiscovered corners,” assures their dinner companion, Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) – whose subsequent disappearance from a westward-bound train forms the mystery of Alfred Hitchcock’s effervescent thriller. “That’s because there’s nothing worth discovering, I should think,” comes the reply.

We’ve all met the types – the Brits abroad for whom each foreign clime is measured only in its shortfall of similarity to our fair isles. Charters and Caldicott are wonderful creations, whose bristling and bumbling are central to the pleasures of this most pleasurable of films, but – on the eve of the Second World War – Hitchcock uses them for a serious sideswipe at blimpish complacency in the face of the mounting terror in Europe.

Black Narcissus (1947)

Director Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

This erotically charged melodrama came out in 1947, the year of India’s independence from British rule. It’s the story of an attempt by an order of Anglican nuns, led by the Irish Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), to establish a convent in a remote spot in the Himalayas. Trouble is, the site in question, the Palace of Mopu, was formerly a harem, and some kind of ungodly energy still flows through the place along with the chill mountain wind.

Certainly Clodagh, made wan and emotionally brittle by the inhospitable environs, feels the strangeness, and so too does Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), who begins to lose her grip with all this seclusion, becoming maniacal with jealousy at Clodagh’s attentions from Dean (David Farrar), the manly local agent.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s masterpiece follows on from their “I Know Where I’m Going!” (1945) in exploring how the mystical ambience of a place impacts upon the unprepared outsider. But here the hyper-real, wet-paint Technicolor and painted backdrops serve to remind us that these Brits are abroad not just in India but in their own minds and reveries. As Dean warns: “There’s something in the atmosphere which makes everything seem exaggerated.”

Journey to Italy (1954)

Director Roberto Rossellini

Coming near the end of a run of films the director made starring his then wife Ingrid Bergman, Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy stars Bergman and George Sanders as Katherine and Alex Joyce, an English couple whose marriage hits the rocks during a trip to Naples in order to sell a house they’ve inherited.

Following in the tradition of authors Henry James and E.M. Forster, Rossellini’s film documents the instability of the Anglo-Saxon sensibility amid the heat, dust and vigour of Mediterranean life. Bored with one another, Alex takes refuge in business; Katherine in sightseeing and romantic memories of a poet she once knew. Italy is never quite what either of them expect, its rude reality prone to puncture daydreams, and a trip to the ruins of Pompeii rattles nerves when they are shown two ancient lovers entombed in an eternal embrace. The gap between our excited expectations of foreign places and the frank reality has rarely been so movingly expressed. 

Our Man in Havana (1959)

Director Carol Reed

British director Carol Reed scored a hat-trick of classics based on Graham Greene stories in the 1940s, with Odd Man Out (1946), The Fallen Idol (1948) and The Third Man (1949). After a fallow 1950s, he recovered his mojo to a degree with this flawed but still richly entertaining adaptation of Greene’s 1955 novel about an expat vacuum-cleaner salesman living in pre-revolutionary Cuba who is signed up as a spy by British intelligence.

Alec Guinness is on twinklingly mischievous form as our errant hero, Wormold, who merrily pockets fat expense cheques while feeding back a litany of non-information and nonsense to London. In sharp black and white, Reed captures the hazy, lazy feel of Havana afternoons, when a stop-off for a daiquiri at the local bar is usually the order of the day. It’s all too hot for a Cold War, and Wormold is oblivious to the dangerous waters where he’s blithely wading with his little white lies. “Don’t let me down,” commands gentlemanly Whitehall operative Hawthorne (Noël Coward), “you’re an Englishman, aren’t you?” – but this is one Englishman who has been in the sun too long.

Eva (1962)

Director Joseph Losey

“Don’t Look Now” (1973) is an indisputably great film about Brits in Venice, but here’s an earlier treat with a no less deadly sting in its tail. Stanley Baker plays Tyvian Jones, an expat Welsh novelist with a phoney past but the promise of a happy future with a stunning Italian heiress who dotes on him. Instead, he crosses paths with a sullen and capricious French goodtime girl, Eva (Jeanne Moreau), and – unable to resist her siren’s call – begins a drawn out, masochistic and destructive affair.

An Italian-French co-production made by the blacklisted American director Joseph Losey midway into his new career as one of the UK’s best directors, Eva was a troubled project, slashed in length by its producers Robert and Raymond Hakim. But it remains a film of chic romantic desolation, similar in milieu to the films that Michelangelo Antonioni was making at the time but with its feet as squarely in myth as in modernity. Losey’s sinuous, shifting camera movements, constantly reframing and looking askance at the action through mirrors and along edges, are as seductive as his glittering depiction of Venice, where who knows what white rabbit (or hooded dwarf) might pass to tempt the unwary.

Pulp (1972)

Director Mike Hodges

Following their brutal gangland classic Get Carter (1971), Michael Caine and director Mike Hodges immediately reunited for a project in a much lighter vein. Caine plays novelist Mickey King, an expat living in Rome who makes his living writing trashy paperbacks. Hired to ghostwrite the autobiography of Preston Gilbert (Mickey Rooney), an ageing movie star with Mafia ties, he travels to Malta to meet Gilbert, but soon finds the bodies piling up in mysterious circumstances. For, as the original poster juicily had it: “Pulp means paperback books, also means pulverized bodies.”

There’s a mood of sunny relaxation about this project, and Hodges has a lot of fun tipping his hat to Chandler and Hammett while goosing around with thriller conventions. Some of the comedy feels too broad by half, but Pulp’s still a film you’d happily catch on late-night television and stay till the end. J.G. Ballard, for one, claimed to have seen it a dozen times.

A Room with a View (1985)

Director James Ivory

Long before the likes of Lonely Planet cornered the travel guide market, the leisure classes wouldn’t pack a suitcase without their Baedeker, one of the series of travel guides produced since the 1830s by the German publisher of the same name. “Tut, tut! Miss Lucy!”, reprimands Miss Bartlett upon seeing her young charge reaching for hers in E.M. Forster’s novel A Room with a View, “I hope we shall soon emancipate you from Baedeker. He does but touch the surface of things. As to the true Italy – he does not even dream of it. The true Italy is only to be found by patient observation.”

Played in the 1985 film version by Helena Bonham Carter and Maggie Smith respectively, Lucy and her elder cousin Miss Bartlett have come away to Florence, a key stop-off on any high-cultural trip to Europe since the days of the Grand Tour. Starchy she may be, but Miss Bartlett has a point, and Lucy will soon discover an Italy that’s altogether headier and more sensual than that she can read about in books or primly imagine via the city’s medieval architecture.

A hugely entertaining and visually ravishing account of the fussiness and foibles of the well-heeled Edwardian abroad, this 1980s box-office smash cemented producer-director team Ismail Merchant and James Ivory’s reputation for well-appointed period dramas.

Sexy Beast (2000)

Director Jonathan Glazer

The torpor of life in the sun for the expat British community living on Spain’s Costa del Sol got its perfect movie incarnation in this terrific crime movie from 2000 – the directorial debut of Jonathan Glazer.

Ray Winstone is the tanned-to-leather former London gangster who’s quite happy melting by the pool at his Spanish villa, leaving all that crime business in a barely remembered past. He’s made his bed and feels good lying in it. But here comes Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) from the capital, a force of psychotic nature, hellbent on getting Winstone involved in his latest heist, sweating into his starched white shirt as he spouts profanities and refuses to recognise no as an answer.

Glazer avoids all sneering at these suncreamed Brits abroad, as adrift from the real Spain as they are from Britain; instead, we really root for Winstone maintaining his place in the sun. It’s been said before but Kingsley is brilliant here: hilarious and terrifying by turns – the person you’d least want to turn up in your perpetual-package-holiday retirement.

Morvern Callar (2001)

Director Lynne Ramsay

From Kevin & Perry Go Large (2000) to The Inbetweeners Movie (2011), a string of modern British youth movies has periodically attempted to capture the debauched energies of the 18-30s package-holiday phenomenon. Lynne Ramsay offers a more detached, poeticised perspective with her second film, Morvern Callar, which moves from a first half in wintry small-town Scotland to the yellow heat of Almeria in southern Spain.

Like Jack Nicholson’s Spain-destined character in The Passenger (1975), the eponymous Morvern (Samantha Morton) sees a chance to simply slip out of her life and into a new one that doesn’t really belong to her. Her boyfriend has killed himself, leaving her some money, a compilation tape and the manuscript of his first novel. Apparently shocked into near catatonia, she nonetheless soon finds herself living it up with her best friend in a hedonistic resort where holiday reps conduct poolside strip-offs and vast apartment blocks become nightly battlegrounds of wasted Brits.

Via Morton’s impassive, near inscrutable performance, we survey this dissolute world almost like visitors from another galaxy, and it’s interesting to revisit Morvern Callar in the wake of Under the Skin (2013) and recognise another otherworldly tour through humanity’s sleazier corners.

Unrelated (2007)

Director Joanna Hogg

Among the most distinctive British directing debuts in recent years, Joanna Hogg’s Unrelated accompanies an extended family of middle-class Brits on their holiday at a villa in Tuscany. Tagging along is Anna (Kathryn Worth), a friend of the mother’s whose life is less settled: she’s left a troubled relationship behind in Britain, and seeks affirmation in the company of the group’s younger members – not least in her flirty chemistry with the cocky and entitled Oakley (Tom Hiddleston).

Hogg’s vantage point is cool and unhysterical, but from it we see the fissures of trouble in paradise widen and deepen until the tension explodes into an almighty row between Oakley and his father. For this brilliantly unbearable scene, Hogg observes the rest of the group lazing by the pool, stilled to awkward silence by the blazing argument very audibly going on in the villa behind them. We’ve all had moments like this on holiday, and remember the feeling of not knowing where to look. With this and her second film, Archipelago (2010), Hogg proved herself a master of squirm-inducing portraits of the British at leisure yet unable to leave our combustive differences at home. 

Your suggestions

  1. Carry On Abroad (Gerald Thomas, 1972)
  2. Shirley Valentine (Lewis Gilbert, 1988)
  3. Kevin & Perry Go Large (Ed Bye, 2000)
  4. The Hit (Stephen Frears, 1984)
  5. “Don’t Look Now” (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)
  6. The Limey (Steven Soderbergh, 1999)
  7. Are You Being Served? (Bob Kellett, 1977)
  8. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (John Madden, 2011)
  9. Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)
  10. The Inbetweeners Movie (Ben Palmer, 2011)

Lots of great suggestions came in when we asked you on social media what we’d missed from the list. Two Terence Stamp crime movies, The Hit and The Limey, set in Spain and California respectively, both racked up the votes, while there was also a strong showing for big-screen spin-offs from TV shows. If the high-placing of Kevin & Perry Go Large, the Are You Being Served? film and The Inbetweeners Movie proves anything, it’s that taking your tried-and-tested small-screen characters abroad for a big-screen special is a winning formula. Not so winning, however, as putting the Carry On actors on a package holiday to the Mediterranean island of Els Bels: the 24th entry in the Carry On series, 1972’s Carry On Abroad, stormed into first place as this week’s winner.

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