10 great films set in Victorian London

With The Elephant Man back in cinemas, journey back to the original sin city, where Sherlock Holmes, Oliver Twist and Count Dracula all walked the dark streets.

12 March 2020

By Kat Ellinger

The Elephant Man (1980)

No film has captured the lugubrious side of Victorian London in such damning shades of filth, squalor and human cruelty like The Elephant Man (1980).

Returning to cinemas for its 40th anniversary, David Lynch’s film tells the true story of the short life of sideshow ‘freak’ turned medical experiment John Merrick – portrayed in the film, under eight hours of make-up, by John Hurt. His story is delivered with a raw emotional potency that speaks volumes about the deprivation faced by Londoners in the late 1800s who were poor, marginalised or living with disabilities.

Merrick’s tale may be an exceptional one, but through it Lynch conjures Victorian London with equal parts brutality and empathy. From the sleazy spectacles of the sideshow to poverty, alcoholism and abuse, the film rakes through Merrick’s hellish early experiences holding very little back. And while his potential saviour, Dr Treves (Anthony Hopkins), is seen as helping his charge, in the doctor’s high society circle Merrick is still very much on show. Even in the hospital he isn’t safe from prying eyes. Everyone seems to want to make their name, or a few quid, from his infamous demeanour.

Rising to the occasion of a bigger-budgeted period film after his freaky breakthrough Eraserhead (1977), Lynch excavates the rotten core of a rotten city that refuses to let Merrick have his dignity.

As The Elephant Man is dusted down in a 4K digital restoration, here are 10 of the cinema’s most atmospheric trips down the dark streets of Queen Victoria’s London.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

Director: Rouben Mamoulian

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

Fredric March’s inspired performance(s) in the eponymous lead(s) in this celebrated early sound version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic 1886 novel Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde won him his first Academy Award. March was the only star to win best actor for appearing in a horror film until Anthony Hopkins bagged one for his role as Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs some 60 years later.

Given the film’s emphasis on libidinal themes, the Oscar would have been unthinkable just three years later when Joseph Breen took over the Hays Code office, effectively stamping out any sniff of immorality in American cinema. For example, in one scene where Ivy (Miriam Hopkins) tries to seduce Jekyll, a huge amount of attention is paid to showing her seductively stripping off her stockings, while a hypnotic flashback of her stockinged leg is overlapped onto a later scene to indicate Jekyll’s burgeoning carnality. Once Hyde is unleashed, he forces the object of his obsession into sex slavery, and the theme of rape is also strongly suggested. 

Gaslight (1944)

Director: George Cukor

Gaslight (1944)

Following hot on the heels of a 1940 British version of Patrick Hamilton’s play Gaslight, this American adaptation, starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer and Joseph Cotten, is one of the best entries in Hollywood’s 1940s cycle of gothic melodramas. With many men away fighting in the Second World War, the studios began doubling down on films with presumed feminine appeal. From William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights (1939) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) on, gothic themes and doomed romance ruled the day.

In typical gothic melodrama tradition, Gaslight is a Bluebeard tale in which a newly married woman, Paula, is terrorised to the point of hysteria by her own husband. The role offered Bergman – who came to Hollywood in 1939 flaunting a new type of dangerous earthly sexuality (if the censors at the Hays Office are to be believed) – the chance to play a crumbling, victimised maiden, which is a type of role she would later resurrect for Alfred Hitchcock in Under Capricorn (1949). Director George Cukor fills every frame with a weighty claustrophobia, from Paula’s dimly lit townhouse to the foggy nocturnal streets outside. 

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

Director: Albert Lewin

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

For Oscar Wilde, Victorian London represented a playground for vice, debauchery and hedonism, all of which he explored in his 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. The eponymous Gray is gifted a portrait of himself, which he discovers is ageing while he retains his youth. At first he’s delighted, but the painting soon becomes a millstone around his neck. The picture wastes away, becoming more and more haggard and twisted; the once beautiful likeness ruined by the scars of Gray’s evildoing, as he drives away everyone he has ever cared about. 

Albert Lewin’s film adaptation grapples with the aspects of tragedy and guilt in Wilde’s text, emphasising how Gray’s hedonism descends quickly into pointless cruelty. Hurd Hatfield gives a fine, understated performance as Gray, while up-and-coming star Angela Lansbury – who also appears in Gaslight – stands out in her supporting role as Gray’s love interest, singer Sibyl. Although Lewin’s treatment is ultimately restrained, it paints Victorian London in a particularly doomladen light, and is notable for its atmosphere and downbeat tone. 

Great Expectations (1946)

Director: David Lean

Great Expectations (1946)

Widely recognised as one of the greatest of all British films, alongside his similarly impressive 1948 adaptation of Oliver Twist, David Lean’s take on Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations comes brimming with the author’s bleak romanticism. Boasting Oscar-winning set design and cinematography, it’s full of expressionistic shadows that tip moments into outright gothic horror.

The London our hero Pip (John Mills) arrives in to make his name is not the brave new world of excitement he was expecting, but a forbidding city of crowded streets, where the latest grim spectacle at the gallows provides the entertainment. But if Lean heaps on the sombre atmosphere, his casting provides plenty of colourful notes, with Martita Hunt as raving mad Miss Havisham, stuck in her mouldy old mansion with the dust, cobwebs and rat-infested wedding cake; Valerie Hobson as the cool, calculated Estella (the object of Pip’s desire); Alec Guinness in an early role as Pip’s friend Herbert Pocket; and Finlay Currie as Magwitch, Pip’s unlikely criminal benefactor. 

Scrooge (1951)

Director: Brian Desmond Hurst

Scrooge (1951)

Brian Desmond Hurst’s adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is often rated the definitive version, with Alistair Sim the actor to beat in his spirited rendition of the original Christmas grinch. Yet, while proving popular on release in the UK, it flopped in the US, and critics on both sides of the Atlantic seemed surprised by the film’s dark tone. They shouldn’t have been. While A Christmas Carol ultimately offers messages of redemption and hope, it is essentially a ghost story about a nasty rude man who abuses his employees and is motivated by greed. As such, Sim puts in a particularly mean-spirited performance for much of the running time, but it’s in Scrooge’s moments of vulnerability and fear that he really shines.

Dickensian London is also shown in many shades, from the bright society world of joyous seasonal cheer to Bob Cratchit’s existence in the slum-ridden world of the lower classes.

Oliver! (1968)

Director: Carol Reed

Oliver! (1968)

Despite upbeat songs like ‘Consider Yourself’ and ‘Food, Glorious Food’, the angelic face of child star Mark Lester as Oliver Twist and the cheeky smile of Jack Wild as his partner in crime The Artful Dodger, Carol Reed’s all singing, all dancing adaptation of Lionel Bart’s stage musical refuses to shy away from Dickens’ darker themes of prostitution, petty crime, child exploitation and murder. Reed’s nephew Oliver Reed brings his usual intensity as the bestial pimp Bill Sikes, while Ron Moody is an ominous presence as Fagin, the corrupter of youth who trains street children as pickpockets. Meanwhile, as the forlorn prostitute Nancy, who is caught up in an abusive relationship with Sikes, Shani Wallis lends the film an emotional potency that wouldn’t look out of place in a Ken Loach picture. All this in a film that was marketed as entertainment for the whole family!

Winning the Oscar for best picture, Oliver! was a critical comeback for its director, who had been struggling to get a foothold in Hollywood since his run of 1940s British classics, Odd Man Out (1947), The Fallen Idol (1948) and The Third Man (1949).

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

Director: Billy Wilder

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

Although this late-in-his-career detective yarn was not initially considered one of Billy Wilder’s best films, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes has proved to be something of a grower. When the film was originally made, New Hollywood was in bloom with its in your face approach to sex and violence, after the breakdown of the Production Code in 1968. By contrast, Wilder’s film was subtle and cheeky – an approach that worked well during the Code era, when insinuation and innuendo were the only way to circumnavigate the rules. By 1970, these methods were looking out of step.

Viewed today, however, it’s what Wilder leaves between the lines that makes the film so special. With so many film adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective stories to pick from, Wilder’s account stands out for its wry, tongue-in-cheek ribbing of the Victorian sleuth – the suggestion that Holmes is the type of detective who likes to go out on benders, for example, but also its subtle exploration of queer themes, as played out in the relationship between Holmes (Robert Stephens) and Watson (Colin Blakely). Writer-director Mark Gatiss revealed recently that Wilder’s film made such an impact on him as a young man that it eventually became one of the main inspirations for his BBC drama Sherlock (co-written with Steven Moffat.).

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981)

Director: Walerian Borowczyk

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981)

Historically, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has proved difficult to adapt for the screen because of the subversive elements hidden between the lines of the text. Although Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 version focused on sexual transgression and the 1960 Hammer horror The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll attempted to tackle themes such as infidelity and suicide, censorship has often hampered this gothic tale of dualism on the big screen. That is until Walerian Borowczyk’s 1981 erotic horror adaptation, which may have taken a few liberties with the original story, but took no prisoners when it came to spelling out the exploration of sexual taboo.

Featuring scenes of rape and graphic murder, Borowczyk was able to comment on bourgeois hypocrisy and sexual mores by drawing out all of the truly perverse aspects that gothic horror has to offer. What’s remarkable about the film, as with much of his work, is the emphasis it puts on the character of Miss Osbourne (played by Marina Pierro), who is shown as a truly liberated force of nature, next to her weaker male counterpart Jekyll (played by Udo Kier). As a result the director gives the film’s conclusion an empowering gender-bending twist. 

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

The most opulent of all film adaptations of Bram Stoker’s famous novel, as well as one of the most faithful, Francis Ford Coppola’s film attempted to return the story to its original flavour, with a heavy emphasis on gothic romance and sexual transgression. The result fleshes out the dualistic themes in the text: namely the sexual repression of Victorian middle-class London versus the wild, untamed carnality of the ancient vampire.

Most interesting about this version is the way that Coppola restores the character of Mina (Winona Ryder). She’s no longer the mere victim portrayed in most adaptations, but Stoker’s incarnation of a New Woman – the name given to Victorian middle-class women who were able to seek a modern identity and certain sense of independence through education and work. Gary Oldman as the voracious Dracula is also unforgettable – monstrous and shocking at times, yet charismatic and dapper at others, sporting top hat, frock coat and tinted shades. Their scenes together explore some of Stoker’s more sexual elements, such as Mina sucking the blood from Dracula’s chest, willingly and wantonly.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Director: Tim Burton

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

After exploring gothic Victoriana in his animated feature Corpse Bride (2005), director Tim Burton set his sights on a far grislier live action story with an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s 1979 stage musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Burton was quick to cast his usual dream team of Johnny Depp, as Todd, and Helena Bonham-Carter, as the razor killer’s partner in crime, cannibal pie maker Mrs Lovett. 

Here we meet a revenge-ridden antihero in the character of Todd, who is out to settle a score against a nefarious judge, Turpin (Alan Rickman). Under Burton’s command, the story becomes a visceral slasher film in which Victorian London is presented as highly stylised and artificial. This allows him to draw out the more ghoulish aspects of the legend, layering on the gruesome details – from Todd’s squalid filth-ridden home to Lovett’s almost skeletal features, accentuated with dark make-up around the eyes. The film is grand guignol turned up to 11 for the 21st century, a perverse romp through the backstreets and dark alleyways of a city contaminated by sin.

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