10 great films set on British islands

From The Wicker Man to Whisky Galore!, we celebrate classic films set on islands around Great Britain.

Samuel Wigley
Updated:

Iona (2015)

Iona (2015)

It is often said that we are an island nation, but more accurately we are a nation of islands. Some 6,000 islands make up the British Isles, politically divided between the sovereign states of the UK and Ireland but geographically simply an archipelago (one of the world’s most numerous) scattered across the eastern Atlantic.

Given that number, filmmakers might be accused of a certain mainland myopia, though since the overwhelming majority of the UK’s population live in Great Britain or Northern Ireland it’s not too surprising that our movies have tended to reflect this bias. By far the most filmed offshore British islands are those in the Hebrides, which have provided the setting for comedies (The Ghost of St. Michael’s, 1941; Whisky Galore!, 1949), romances (“I Know Where I’m Going!”, 1945), thrillers (When Eight Bells Toll, 1971) and one very special horror film (The Wicker Man, 1973).

Foreign auteurs have occasionally been attracted to our islands too. A lot of Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996) is filmed on Skye, even if its actual setting seems to be on the Scottish mainland. François Truffaut set and filmed much of his historical romance The Story of Adèle H. (1975) on Guernsey in the Channel Islands, while – as we’ll see below – Roman Polanski must be about the only person to have made a feature on Lindisfarne.

We’re talking islands because new on BFI Player is Iona, the second feature from Scott Graham, who made the acclaimed Highlands-set coming-of-age story Shell (2012). Filmed over a golden summer on the Hebridean isle of the title (pop. 177), it’s the story of a woman and her son who flee there from the mainland to escape the law, finding a spiritual sanctuary among the island’s religious community.

To toast Graham’s film, we’ve put together a little archipelago of our own: the top 10 British island movies.

The Manxman (1929)

Director Alfred Hitchcock

The Manxman (1929)

Let’s pass over the fact that this silent drama was actually shot on the mainland. The location work by the young Alfred Hitchcock and his cinematographer Jack E. Cox in the Cornish harbour town of Polperro does a very evocative job of convincing us we’re on the Isle of Man – and certainly no better film has since laid claim to that stronghold in the Irish Sea.

It features Anny Ondra (who starred in Hitchcock’s Blackmail later the same year) as an islander who promises herself in marriage to a local fisherman, only to later fall for his more financially eligible lawyer friend when the fortune-seeking fisherman supposedly dies overseas. As in F.W. Murnau’s contemporaneous classic Sunrise (1927), this rather melodramatic love-triangle plot is transcended by the expressive sophistication of its filming, with Hitchcock anchoring the romantic intrigue in a credibly salty and naturalistic depiction of Manx life. There’s been a tendency to sideline Hitch’s work outside of the thriller genre, but – if not quite a British Sunrise – The Manxman deserves consideration among his best early films.

The Edge of the World (1937)

Director Michael Powell

The Edge of the World (1937)

Michael Powell had done his time making countless quota quickies before finally getting the chance to make this more personal film, inspired by the evacuation of the Hebridean island of St Kilda in 1930. Filmed on Foula in the Shetland Isles after Powell was denied permission to shoot on St Kilda, it’s a unique blend of quasi-documentary ethnology and romantic melodrama, mixing actors with non-professionals.

The Edge of the World begins with contemporary yachtsmen espying the island and going ashore, before a spectral double-exposure introduces us to the community who until so recently made its home there. Like Hitchcock’s The Manxman, it becomes another tale of two men fighting for the same woman (the perils of living in a small community!), a conflict which is decided by the ancient challenge to scale the island’s most perilous rock face. Powell’s mystical feeling for the British landscape comes to the fore in this film; his rhapsodic filming of Foula’s plunging cliffsides and rolling seas form a sublime backdrop to this portrait of life in one of the UK’s remotest corners.

The Spy in Black (1939)

Director Michael Powell

The Spy in Black

Two years after filming The Edge of the World in the Shetland Isles, Michael Powell headed way up north again for this thrilling First World War espionage drama set in Longhope on the island of South Walls in the Orkneys. Conrad Veidt plays a German spy who is set ashore from his U-boat to rendezvous with a contact posing as an English teacher in the local school (Valerie Hobson). His mission? To lead an attack on the British naval fleet moored nearby at Scapa Flow.

In fact, though some exteriors were shot at the harbour and of the towering sea stack known as the Old Man of Hoy, overall The Spy in Black is a more studio-bound proposition than Powell’s other island films. But that hardly gets in the way of a very taut 82 minutes in which the shadowy intrigue bears comparison with the spy thrillers of Hitchcock or Fritz Lang. This is the film on which Powell first worked with screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, leading to their collaboration as beloved production team The Archers throughout the 1940s and 50s.

And Then There Were None (1945)

Director René Clair

And Then There Were None (1945)

This is the first of at least 10 times that Agatha Christie’s 1939 mystery novel has been adapted for the screen (most recently with the glossy BBC miniseries), and has some claims on being definitive, despite the censorship of the time requiring changes to some of Christie’s ingenious plotting.

Like the novel, René Clair’s version is set in a secluded country house on an island off the coast of Devon, where 10 assorted guests are invited to spend the weekend by a mysterious host. It seems surplus to requirements to mention that they start dropping dead one by one, so famous and influential Christie’s plot has been. But Clair conducts this particular battle royale with no little wit and plenty of the urbane sophistication that once made him one of the most celebrated filmmakers in the world. Clair’s star has since fallen, there aren’t really very many islands off Devon, and those cliffsides look very much like northern California to me – yet this is crême-de-la-crême Hollywood entertainment, with a delicious rogue’s gallery of supporting actors of the order of Judith Anderson, C. Aubrey Smith, Walter Huston and Mischa Auer

“I Know Where I’m Going!” (1945)

Directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

“I Know Where I’m Going!” (1945)

Part of the run of consecutive classics that Powell & Pressburger made in the 1940s, “I Know Where I’m Going!” gave Powell another chance to indulge his passion for Scottish islands. The Archers crew went on location to film this story of a headstrong English woman, Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller), who embarks on a journey north from Manchester to the (fictional) Hebridean island of Kiloran to meet her wealthy new fiancé, only to become stranded on the Isle of Mull during a tempest. Shot in numinous black and white by Erwin Hillier, this satellite world of capricious weather, myth, curses and tradition will befuddle Joan’s determination and turn her head in the direction of the charming local laird Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey).

One of the best films ever made offshore, onshore or anywhere, this is a magnificently expressive and entertaining tribute both to the Western Isles and to the intoxicating effect that people and places can have upon the imagination. 

Whisky Galore! (1949)

Director Alexander Mackendrick

Whisky Galore (1949) poster

Scottish-American director Alexander Mackendrick made his debut with this 1949 Ealing comedy, set on the fictional isle of Todday and filmed on Barra in the Outer Hebrides. Based on a novel by Compton Mackenzie, itself based on a wartime incident in which the islanders of Eriskay relieved the wrecked SS Politician of its consignment of whisky, it’s a classic Ealing tale of good-natured subversion, affectionately depicting a community whose spirits rise or fall depending on their ready access to a decent dram.

Basil Radford plays the stuffy sassenach commander of the local home guard, who takes it as his duty to prevent the thirsty locals from accessing the shipwreck’s cargo of amber nectar. But his determination meets its match among the wily islanders, whose number include Joan Greenwood, Gordon Jackson, James Robertson Justice and a host of actual Barra residents as extras. Mackendrick’s film was renamed Tight Little Island in the US, where censorship prevented liquor-related movie titles.

Cul-de-sac (1966)

Director Roman Polanski

Cul-de-sac (1966)

This is such a strange and wonderful film from Roman Polanski. For his second British feature after the Kensington-flat nightmare of Repulsion (1965), he alighted upon a very special location: the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, off the coast of Northumberland.

The tidal island’s dramatic 16th-century castle, now a National Trust property, is put to terrific use as the home of nervy George (Donald Pleasence) and his young wife Teresa (Françoise Dorleac). A home invasion thriller with a mile-wide absurdist streak, Cul-de-sac begins with two on-the-lam gangsters breaking down in their car on the mainland and making their way across the causeway to the couple’s lonely fort, where commences a humiliating battle for supremacy. Filmed in steely monochrome during what appears to have been a fine summer on England’s northeast coast, this is a classic example of a foreign director mining huge cinematic potential from a location that native directors had been blind to. Polanski turns Holy Island into an unholy huis-clos in which sanity seems to erode like soft sand into the sea.

The Wicker Man (1973)

Director Robin Hardy

The Wicker Man (1973)

There’s something undeniably appealing to the imagination about the notion that somewhere in one of the far-flung outposts of our oh-so-rational archipelago the old, weird Britain continues unchecked. In The Wicker Man, a devout Christian policeman from the mainland (Edward Woodward) arrives on the remote Hebridean island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a local girl. He is appalled to discover a world where superstition, promiscuity, pagan worship and harvest sacrifices hold sway, conducted under the aegis of the sinister Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee).

Envy the folk who first saw this on release as the second feature on a double bill with “Don’t Look Now” – dual apexes of British cinema’s dabblings with the strange. Since then, the cult of The Wicker Man has grown and grown, and its classic status is now well established. Wonderful, then, that it still seems freshly odd and perturbing each time you make a return visit to Summerisle. 

The Others (2001)

Director Alejandro Amenábar

The Others (2001)

Aside from TV’s Bergerac, the Channel Islands have had but occasional appearances on screen, mostly in films such as Appointment with Venus (1951) or Triple Cross (1966) which retell an episode from the archipelago’s Second World War history. Though its camera crew never set foot there, Alejandro Amenábar’s more recent ghost story The Others is set on Jersey in the aftermath of that war and courses with a deep melancholy about lives departed.

A very clever twist on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, it stars Nicole Kidman as a mother who becomes increasingly spooked by goings on in her solitary country house, where she keeps all the curtains drawn to protect her young son and daughter, who suffer from extreme photosensitivity. As sad as it is spooky, The Others was a crack of rare light in the world of big-budget horror in the early 2000s, and happily it seems just as effective when revisited today. Where several of the films on this list emphasise the fabric of community, Amenábar’s sounds a forlorn drone of loneliness. The rest of the island barely seems to exist beyond the enshrouding fog.

Archipelago (2010)

Director Joanna Hogg

Archipelago (2010)

‘Five Go Bickering Again’ might be an alternative, Blytonian name for this island-set second feature by Joanna Hogg. As with her 2007 debut Unrelated, it’s a study of a middle-class English family on a fractious holiday – this time trading Tuscany for Tresco in the Isles of Scilly.

In an early role, Tom Hiddleston plays Edward, the earnest young adult son who has joined his mother (Kate Fahy) and sister Cynthia (Lydia Leonard) for a stay at their usual Tresco retreat before he embarks on a gap year to Africa. They’ve hired a cook for their stay (Amy Lloyd) – a bone of contention that adds yet more kindling to familial tensions, which explode memorably during some scenes yet remain politely, agonisingly suppressed during others. With local painter friend Christopher (real-life landscape artist Christopher Baker) on hand to offer lessons in perspective, this is a brilliantly calibrated drama of the needling irritations of staying in close quarters with your relatives. It’s as evocative of the windswept, subtropical beauty of the Scilly Isles as it is of atmospheres you could cut with a knife.

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