World Film Locations: London
Edited by Neil Mitchell
Bristol, UK & Chicago, USA: Intellect, 2011.
Paperback. 136 pages. ISBN 978-1-84150-484-1. £9.95 / $18 / €11
eISBN 978-1-84150-532-9. £6 / $10 / €7
Reviewed by Allister Mactaggart
World Film Locations: London is part of a rapidly expanding series of books, published by Intellect, which explores the centrality and significance of major urban centres in their cinematic usage. In his introduction the editor, Neil Mitchell, states that: “The World Film Locations series strives to marry text and image in a way that mirrors how film-makers combine narrative and location” . In this respect the London book should be regarded as a success; it is both entertaining and informative in equal measure, and would be an excellent accompaniment for investigating noteworthy cinematic locations around the city. The book is available in a variety of formats: as a paperback book; an eBook; and via an iPad app, which provides a range of ways in which readers can interact with the cinematic psychogeography of Britain’s capital city.
The book is organised around six ‘Maps/Scenes’ which span the period from 1927 up to 2009. Each one covers a specific period, set out in chronological order, which allows the reader to gain an understanding of which parts of the city were used as significant locations for the period under discussion. For each ‘Scene’ a brief account is provided about an important location used in the film, with a contemporary photograph set alongside screen grabs from the relevant film. Alongside these ‘Maps/Scenes’ are seven essays which explore particular aspects of film-makers’ use of the city as a location or ‘character’ in the films discussed. In the first essay, ‘London: City of the Imagination’, Neil Mitchell makes the point that there are many cinematic versions of “London”, but what each have in common “is a concern with psycho-geography: the effects of the environment on emotional states” . The energy and diversity of London as a major capital city is thus rightfully acknowledged as part of the way in which cinematic depictions seep into audiences’ consciousness as well as reflecting the ways in which “London is brought to life as a living, breathing character in its own right” .
Scenes 1-8 cover the period from Hitchcock’s The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog of 1927, shot mainly at Gainsborough Studios in Poole Street, Hoxton; to Charles Crichton’s use of Gunnersbury Park, Hounslow in The Lavender Hill Mob of 1951. From the eight examples used in this section, one develops an understanding of how London was perceived and depicted as a dark and dangerous place during this period; as a combination of polluted depravity set alongside the countervailing dark humour during and after the Second World War to cope with the travails facing the city and its inhabitants. The darkness of this time is perhaps best encapsulated by an outsider’s vision of London in Jules Dassin’s Night and the City (1950), which brought a brutal slice of film noir into the heart of the city on what is now the site of the BFI Southbank.
Virginie Sélavy in her essay entitled ‘Victorian London: A Painterly Vision of The City Divided’ argues that the work of artists such as Gustave Doré, James Abbott McNeill Whistler and John O’Connor has had a strong influence upon how Victorian London in general has been depicted in film. Indeed, she makes the point that it is another artist turned film-maker, David Lynch, who, in The Elephant Man (1980) made the most evocative use of real locations to create “a compelling vision of a decaying city” . Yet, as Sélavy goes on to argue, “Beyond their stylistic differences, most Victorian London films depict a city starkly divided by class” .
The second section of scenes (9-16) covers the period from the Pool of London (Basil Dearden, 1951) up to Alfie (Lewis Gilbert, 1966), taking us from post World War II into the “Swinging Sixties”. Films from this period, such as John Littlewood’s Sparrows Can’t Sing (1963), present a mythologised world of working-class camaraderie in the East End which urban regeneration has now largely sought to consign to the annals of “a clichéd memory” . From Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) in My Fair Lady (1964) to the shallow glamour of Diana Scott (Julie Christie) in Darling (1965), and on to Alfie’s (Michael Caine) regrets at the end of that eponymous film, we are presented with works which explore, in different ways, the changing conditions affecting women during this period.
Scott Jordan Harris’s essay on Ealing Studios manages to provide a great deal of information on “the film industry’s oldest continuously active film studios”  to explore its significance for British film, and, particularly Ealing Comedies, to ensure that “any film fan touring London movie locations must surely include a pilgrimage to Ealing Green” .
The next batch of scenes (17-24) covers the period from Blow Up (1966) to Nighthawks (1978). The latter is, as Christopher O’Neill points out “a historically significant feature film since it was the first to deal explicitly with the gay social scene in Britain” . Within this section we also cover the disintegration of the “Swinging Sixties” in Performance (1970) as well as Horace Ové’s first “black” feature Pressure (1976). Another significant film within this period is Michel Apted’s The Squeeze (1977) in which, as Christopher O’Neill points out, the unlikely hero Naboth “regains his pride in a vision of Notting Hill not often portrayed onscreen” , and which acts as an antidote to the anodyne version of that location portrayed by Richard Curtis, as discussed later on in the book.
James Evans’s essay on ‘Swinging London’ makes the point that these films can be seen as “cinematic cobwebs anchored around two rocks—British social realism on one side and the cinema of the counter-culture on the other” . However, by the end of the 1960s the Hollywood majors' love affair with Britain had evaporated and they had decamped back to California leaving “The British film [which] was no longer swinging but hanging” .
Scenes 25-32 cover the period from 1980 up to 1997, from The Long Good Friday to Career Girls via Babylon (1985), An American Werewolf in London (1981), 1984, the “vivid and askew portrait of Thatcher’s Britain and its inter-racial gay relationship”  in My Beautiful Launderette (1985), the gangland supremacy in The Krays (1990) and the “brutal and blackly comic existential drama” in Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993). In this section there is a sense of many “Londons” beginning to emerge in cinematic representations of the city, in which the extreme contradictions of the city come to the fore to challenge previous hegemonic assumptions about “Englishness”.
In James Rose’s essay, ‘Going Underground: Strange Goings On Down Below…’, the role of the Underground as a site of urban legend, and as “a realm of the Underworld, a dark and claustrophobic Hell”  is explored via a range of films, including a reference to Quartermass and the Pit which is discussed as scene 18 on page 52, thereby linking together a general discussion with the specifics of that film.
Scenes 33-40 cover the period from Gary Oldman’s disturbing portrayal of dysfunctional family life in South-East London in Nil By Mouth (1997) to Stephen Frears’s Dirty Pretty Things (2002). Within this section we have a cross section of filmic “Londons”, where, in The World Is Not Enough (1999) the new iconic sites of the Millennium Eye and the 02 Arena form the backdrop to a frantic waterborne chase scene for James Bond, while, at the same time, Roger Mitchell can present “a charming, almost parochial cinematic makeover in Notting Hill” . Yet another, very different, transformation of the city takes place in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) where the usual bustle of the city becomes a “desolate cityscape that’s reluctant to share what it knows” .
Robert Beames’s essay ‘Richard Curtis: A Glamorized and Idealized London’ confronts a vision of London in which “[t]he mostly white, poverty-free London of the Richard Curtis oeuvre prioritizes an exportable version of British national identity made to tally with both the expectations of American audiences and with his own experiences as a public school educated member of the British elite” .
Following this discussion, scenes 41-50 cover the period from Curtis’s Love Actually (2003) to London River (Rachid Bouchareb, 2009). Within this section we have an interesting discussion of the relevance of the Regents Canal in Hackney as the site of crime in Bullet Boy (Saul Dibb, 2004) as it is largely hidden from public view, together with reference to the use of real CCTV footage in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) to bring “the action movie and cinematic London into the twenty-first century” . David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promise (2007) also connects contemporary criminal activity in the city with the Russian Mafia to make pertinent connections between global criminality in the contemporary world.
Jez Conolly’s essay, ‘Thames Tales: Stories by the Riverside’ brings the collection to a suitable end, exploring the ways in which the river has wound its shape into so many narratives of life in the city. As the river itself ebbs and flows, changing shape slowly over time, so too do cinematic visions of this capital city.
In conclusion, each contributor to this book has provided an informative, yet succinct, account of the issues raised to allow a reader to become immersed in the ways in which London has been represented in film, and to reflect upon the ramifications of these different versions of the city. For those captivated by the book there are also references to recommended books, websites and films to take the issues raised in it further. Overall, this is a fascinating book which is well laid out in an attractive format which would allow users of it to plan trips to investigate the sites mentioned in more detail, and which also makes this reader intrigued to investigate other World Film Locations in the series.
Cercles © 2012
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