A Tale of One City: Cinematic London in Contemporary British Cinema

From the expressionistic and bold portrait of London in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 film, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, through to the modern metropolis of scenic icons and vast scale depicted in Sam Mendes’s 2012 film, Skyfall, London has forever been an important cinematic city, holding centuries of history, cultural style, and filmic reference. But, what is London’s defining cinematic personality? If indeed this actually exists as a single entity. In this essay, I will chart an investigative analysis of London as a contemporary cinematic city, while also accounting for the ways in which London has been shaped as a screen icon by both the British and Hollywood film industries. I will explore three key representations of London in the contemporary British cinema, each holding its own significance and connotation in regard to setting the tone, style and personality of the city as presented in the films that depict it. These three representations will include the following headings:

1. ‘International London’, which includes British films of heavy Hollywood investment and involvement. These films present an idolized and iconic view of London, proudly highlighting its British charm and familiar landmarks, yet neglecting the social and cultural issues of living within the city.

2. ‘Social London’, which includes films of independently funded British investment. These films tend to portray London as a multicultural and diverse space, while also depicting a struggling working class and immigrant population.

3. ‘Historical London’, which includes films of both an internationally and independently funded nature. Historical portraits of London in cinema often attempt to blur the line between the previous cinematic representations, displaying both traditional British middle class values and underlining social/cultural tensions within them.

I hope to achieve a “mapping out” of London within the contemporary British cinema, while also asking why the city is so diverse with conflicting cinematic styles and tones. Why do films that represent international London obtain greater box-office gains? Why do films that depict social London receive greater critical success? And how do films set in historical London use their cultural references to successfully toe the line between the two? Does London hold a consistent cinematic personality? Or, is London’s cinematic personality ultimately defined by its lack of consistency?

During the opening scenes of Roger Michell’s 1999 film, Notting Hill, a young and charming Hugh Grant wanders through a busy Portobello Road during market hours. As Grant strolls through the untypical British sunlight, he passes a huge range of bright and lively market stores, many owned by typical British cockney traders, each selling a vast array of colorful products. Almost immediately, the film works to construct a romanticized depiction of London. The ‘London’ of Notting Hill operates as a pastiche; this includes many individual references to realistic elements of London, but the film itself does not allow these elements to hold a tangible grounding within its reality. For example, the central cast of Notting Hill is entirely white and almost entirely middle class, despite the fact that the area of Notting Hill is extremely ethnically diverse. A sense of diversity is captured within the space of the film, but this is only ever viewed from a distance. The film forcefully includes some referential signifiers of Asian and Afro-Caribbean culture, but these are largely shielded behind the film’s central narrative, which instead, chooses to prioritize a charming, middle class, white male, and a beautiful, wealthy, American celebrity. This is because Notting Hill holds a simulated depiction of traditional ‘Britishness’ for international audiences. Janet Harbord reflects on this kind of cinematic depiction, stating, “From images of Big Ben through to the bleached white tones of Four Weddings and a Funeral, the concept of Britishness excludes the majority of the population (refusing) to engage with Britain as a complex ethical mix of identities” (Harbord, 2002, p.110). Some subtle social references are made in Notting Hill towards the crammed and untidy nature of a global metropolitan city such as London; these are presented in the form of busy streets, graffiti on buildings, and piles of untidy rubbish bags resting outside houses. However, the film uses these elements as set dressings, as humorous and quirky references to the social issues London holds without wishing to engage with them directly. Instead, the central characters continue to pursue their romantic interests of love and fame, using London as a recognizable and iconic backdrop for their story, rather than a tactile, lived-in space of any particular narrative significance. This is London as presented on a humorous holiday postcard, with its surface appearance, but without its local personality. As a result, international representations of London are often partly financed or told from a foreign position; this position appreciates and enjoys the famous aesthetic of London, but wishes not to engage with it on a deeper or more profound level.

Notting Hill (1999)

Another film working within the boundaries of depicting international London is Sharon Maguire’s 2001 film, Bridget Jones’s Diary. Much the same could be said about Bridget Jones’s Diary as Notting Hill in terms of its depiction of not just London, but of the community within its borders. Its filmic world is also one of surface layers, of traditional British iconography presented behind middle class stories of love, sex, and romance. Important to note here is the fact that both Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’s Diary were produced by Working Title Films, an important and extremely successful British film production company working on an international scale. NBC Universal currently owns working Title Films, but the company was once a small producer of independent films such as Stephen Frears’s My Beautiful Launderette (1985) (a film strongly set within representing ‘social London’). With an extended investment and influence from NBC Universal, Working Title was able to continue producing films set in the UK and London in particular, but now needed to approach representing the area under a broader and cleaner scope. The honest depiction of British social life seen in My Beautiful Launderette was now altered to reduce any sharp edges; this was in order to account for the new possibility of an international audience. In this, films such as Notting Hill present a depiction of London largely from an Americanized viewpoint. Charlotte O’Sullivan proclaims, “In Notting Hill, big, bold glamorous America is on top … America is shown to have a clear identity, while Britain is all at sea.” (O’Sullivan, 1999, p.50) Notting Hill depicts an American celebrity (Julia Roberts) using her bold persona to influence the identity of London, rather than allowing London’s identity to influence her. In the same way, it could be noted that NBC Universal had a similar effect on Working Title in disrupting its local charm, and instead, placing its own commercial and Americanized view of London and of British identity at the forefront of the films since made by the company. Established by early 90s romantic comedies such as Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), the aesthetic of international London in contemporary British cinema was quickly beginning to develop under Working Title. Made for $4.4 million, leading to a domestic total gross of around $52 million (1), Four Weddings and a Funeral set out a new formula for depicting London and the cinematic essence of British life in general. This success then continued into both Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’s Diary, with, in concession, each film continuing to convey to the international market a representation of London as an intangible modern city, one with the middle class at its foreground, but also one tightly packed with symbolic British icons in the form of black cabs, telephone boxes, red buses, and background landmarks such as Big Ben, Tower Bridge, and The Ritz London. Each of these elements make bold and unsubtle appearances in the background of these film’s narratives in order to summarize the essence of the city without needing to engage with it socially or politically. Indeed, Lucyann Snyder Kerry picks up on this point when discussing the films of Working Title, stating, “the films and the space of London that they represent could be described as a safe and selective representation of white, tension-free, Britishness, a specific national identity sold to the local global market.” (Kerry, 2011, p.15) In the films of international London, we ‘see’ London at arm’s length, rather than ‘experience’ it personally. The films of Working Title are successful because of their easy charm; they possess the ability to sell a quintessential image of Britishness not only to an international audience, but also back to British people themselves; longingly clutching onto traditional ideas of British culture, while concurrently allowing social unrest to linger unnoticed in the background.

My Beautiful Launderette (1985)

Whereas cinematic portraits of international London hold spectacle, icons, and simulation at their center, films under the heading of social London often reach beyond these concerns, examining London as a living city of social unrest by introducing the persona and culture of the city into the narrative of the films themselves. Like Notting Hill, Stephen Frears’s Dirty Pretty Things (2002) takes place in west London, yet the geographical atmosphere portrayed in both is widely conflicting. Indeed, in comparing contrasting versions of London in cinema, Charlotte Brunsdon states, “From Notting Hill to Dirty Pretty Things is a move from a London of luxury hotels, private gardens, charming street markets and ‘boutique locality’ to a London of rubbish-strewn alleys and ‘non-places.’” (Brunsdon, 2007, p.116) A central characteristic of social London is its diverse scope of multiethnic characters in leading roles. In Dirty Pretty Things, we follow Okwe, an illegal Nigerian immigrant who takes two jobs in order to survive. Okwe forms a relationship with Senay, a Turkish asylum seeker who works alongside him. The film’s cast is extremely diverse, examining London as a truly globalized melting pot of culture. Here, London is not a white, middle class sporting ground of quirky English values for international audiences to ‘see’, but is a global reference point of culture, a postmodern city of disconnected signifiers and temporal displacement. The defining characteristic of social London is the fact that it has no defining reference point, but is unclassifiable. The ‘social’ city does not advantage by placing cultural references within its backdrops, but gains character and personality solely by the broad mix of people who inhabit its space. The characters of Dirty Pretty Things are defined by their individual circumstance and perception of the city, yet they in turn give life to the city itself, creating a messy living space of conflicting social values and personality types; the city and its inhibitors connect in order to establish character. Because of its lack of internationally recognized landmarks, the London of Dirty Pretty Things is only primarily recognizable through the spectator’s personal relationship to the city, which will no doubt largely differ depending on its audience.

Dirty Pretty Things (2002)

Stella Hockenhull picks up on this cinematic characteristic while examining contemporary filmic spaces, stating, “A film that contains a setting of a bleak housing estate in London might not depict any of the famous landmarks … but the proximity of London as a capital city is established through the spectator’s interpretation, acceptance and knowledge of that location.” (Hockenhull, 2014, p.11) Dirty Pretty Things underscores this range of spectator interpretation by creating pockets of social isolation through a limited vantage point, never allowing its audience to view a wide-shot of London as an entire city. Instead, the film mostly inhabits smaller and more personal areas within the city, e.g. back alleyways, corner shops, and cramped housing estates. These individual and isolated perceptions of the city deeply affect the characters and narrative of the film itself. Interesting to note is that both Dirty Pretty Things and Notting Hill depict either tourist or immigrant characters who land at opposite perceptions of London as a place of home. In Notting Hill, Anna, a wealthy American celebrity, first arrives in London with money, but with no central passion in life. Anna finds this passion by applying her American identity to the charm of London. The events of the film lead Anna to stay in London, adopting the city as her home. To contrast, the main immigrant characters in Dirty Pretty Things arrive at London in search of opportunity and new life, yet grow increasingly disconnected and homesick as the film progresses. Senay fantasizes about New York and the American dream, while Okwe rejects London altogether, instead longing for his family in Nigeria. The film then ends with the immigrant characters leaving London, quickly becoming disinterested with the type of false charm presented within international London. In short, filmic depictions of social London often explore the isolation and frustration of characters that were offered the fabricated promises presented to them within depictions of international London.

Sarah Gavron’s Brick Lane (2007) also falls under what might be classed as a representation of social London. The film tells the story of a young woman living within a large British Bangladeshi community. During the opening credit sequence of the film, we receive establishing geographical information on a character’s home environment; this is located within a grimy London estate of cramped social housing, complete with vandalized corridors and derelict dirty windows that lonely and depressed looking neighbors curiously peer out from. There are no international signifiers of London within this scene, no Big Ben or London Eye, nothing that would inherently communicate or sell the idea of London to an international audience. The estate itself is a microcosm of social London, a labyrinth of never-ending windows and anonymous doors; an environment not characterized by any one individual element, but by experiencing the aesthetics of the environment as a whole. This space could be anywhere in the world at any possible contemporary moment; this is a London in which charm and personality are not ultimately defined by monuments or icons, but by people, class and culture. Whereas international London is primarily concerned with its image and the ways in which British identity is depicted within this image, social London often reflects upon its cultural status as part of a globalized world, examining the ways that global integration has shifted and transformed the traditions of British identity.

If international London is commercially successful without depicting the social honesty of the city, and social London is socially honest without being commercially successful, then how is it that cinematic portraits of ‘historical London’ can bridge the gap so successfully, while often achieving an equal footing in highlighting both the symbolic and the cultural essences of London as a modern cinematic city? To recreate a historical period of London is to already engage with the city symbolically, audiences need to know about the period portrayed in order to understand the context of the film itself. In addition to this, historical displays of London not only engage with the social issues of whichever period they portray, but they also engage with nostalgia, the ways in which we look back to a particular period of history, either with great fondness or regrettable shame. The central pleasure of historical London is like that of a history lesson; historical London presents social unrest as a museum of fascination, meaning that audiences can establish a clear distinction between the past and the present. Historical London’s content is less personal than that of social London, yet more emotionally tangible than that of international London. On this, Lindsay Steenberg comments upon Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes (2009), she states, “Ritchie’s London is a carnivalesque playground (which) may be a simulated Hollywood dream, but one that is certainly in keeping with the mischievous urbanity of the Holmes mythology.” (Steenberg, 2011, p.126) With historical context at the film’s heart, Ritchie is able to address certain social aspects of London while still working within a largely fictionalized and idolized Hollywood template, thereby straddling the lines of international and social London. In a similar way, Matthew Warchus’s Pride (2014) engages with both the iconography and sociology of London. Towards the opening of the film, a gay rights march takes place on the streets of central London in 1984. Within the scene, a sense of London is subtly created via camera work and set design. The audience takes on this sense by being gently guided through references of London in the 1980s, yet the film avoids having its characters directly engage with any significant landmarks of London until its very end, when the Palace of Westminster is seen. However, as far as how social issues of London and Britain are treated in the film, Pride takes many historical and social concerns, placing them at the very heart of its narrative, including references to British politics, particularly surrounding Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative government. The film thereby engages with London successfully without creating an overarching sense of screen tourism, meaning the city feels less like a novelty postcard, and more like a living, breathing cinematic setting.

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Historical London can also successfully represent the people of London without needing to rely on a wide cast of unrecognizable actors. Nigel Cole’s Made in Dagenham (2010) features the likes of Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins, Rosamund Pike, and Miranda Richardson; an internationally recognizable cast all working within main acting roles. Also a film focused on social rights, Made in Dagenham takes place on the outskirts of London, capturing the area’s shifting culture during the late 1960s. The film mixes social classes, holding a wide range of London accents, personalities, and cultural attitudes; this fulfills the aspirations of social London while still remaining to hold an average budget and a cast of star power. The film deals with issues surrounding the lower pay rate of women in the UK, a topic of which is still relevant for contemporary audiences, meaning that Made in Dagenham can provide contemporary social commentary without having to directly engage with contemporary issues. Pride also succeeds in this, establishing an emotional borderline tension towards the gay community in Britain during the 1980s without directly addressing the social hostility that still remains within contemporary London. Historical London can therefore provide the same intellectual response as social London, while still remaining to be as pleasurable and emotionally satisfying as international London.

As discussed in this essay, the three proposed screen representations of London each come with unique advantages and disadvantages. Some films are able to successfully toe the line between categories, such as Tom Hooper’s 2010 film, The King’s Speech (2010), which could be viewed as representing a ‘historically international’ version of London. Both the UK Film Council and the Weinstein Company financially backed The King’s Speech, highlighting a strong sense of ‘British-Hollywood’ within its production. Therefore, it could be suggested that the chosen representation within any given film depends very much on its budget and financial backing. To shoot a ‘British-Hollywood’ film outside the iconic realms of central London may be viewed as commercially risky since this film would personally and geographically relate to a smaller group of people. There may be no true way to capture the essence of London as a modern city because the city itself registers differently depending on its audience. Los Angeles in cinema is often defined by intense heat and luxury; Paris by love and moonlight; Tokyo by kinetic energy and technology. Yet, London is defined by its melting pot fluidity, by its unclassifiable nature, by its unwillingness to accept a pre-shaped cultural mold. The cinematic London of contemporary British cinema is ultimately defined by its unknowable changeability, the people who inhabit its space, and an overall lack of consistency; of which, the categories outlined in this essay prove to be true.

1. ‘Box Office Mojo: Four Weddings and a Funeral’, available online at: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=main&id=fourweddingsandafun eral.htm (accessed, 30/3/2016).

Brunsdon, C. (2007) London in Cinema: The Cinematic City Since 1945, London: The British Film Institute.

Harbord, J. (2002) Film Cultures, London: SAGE Publications.

Hockenhull, S. (2014) Aesthetics and Neo-Romanticism in Film, London: I.B.Tauris.

Kerry, L, S. (2011) ‘Genre and Globalization: Working Title Films, the British Romantic Comedy and the Global Film Market’, available online at: https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/bitstream/handle/10036/4142/KerryL.pdf?sequenc e=2 (accessed, 19/04/2016).

O’Sullivan, C. (1999) ‘Notting Hill’, in Sight and Sound, Vol. 9, 6th June.

Steenberg, L. (2011) ‘Sherlock Holmes’, in World Film Locations: London, ed. Neil Mitchell, Bristol: Intellect Books.

2 Replies to “A Tale of One City: Cinematic London in Contemporary British Cinema”

  1. Nice work, Darrell. I love to see London as it was in older films, whilst taking the point about contemporary cinema. I relish the Old London of ‘Passport To Pimlico’, ‘A Kid For Two Farthings’, and ‘The Blue Lamp.’ Even Hitchcock’s ‘Frenzy’, with its Covent Garden setting, shows how quickly the capital has changed in a few decades.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  2. I really like this piece, being a fan of London and of cinema.
    I really like your blog in general, too, both layout and content. Pleased to have found you!

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