If you can’t do without the English capital but can’t enjoy it live during these lockdown days, nothings better than discovering (or rediscovering) the more or less famous corners of the city through some of the most famous films set in London.
London, like all great metropolises, has seen leading directors and actors parading through its parks and skyscrapers. Although the city has been overshadowed for several decades by the two classic excellences of good cinema, Rome and Paris, except for some exploits, it has experienced its real cinematic spring from the 90s onwards. In this period, in fact, between films such as 4 weddings and a funeral, Bridget Jones’s diary, Closer, About a boy, a category of its own is being consolidated, the English romantic comedy. The capital, thanks to its so varied spaces, between the sumptuous buildings of the past, the historic symbolic monuments and the aggressive construction of futuristic skyscrapers of the last two decades, is in fact the ideal setting for these fairy tales in a modern key, but also the perfect set for historical films and, paradoxically, also for futuristic dystopias, London and the world of cinema have always been linked by a special and indissoluble bond. This is demonstrated by the fact that many directors, over the years, have chosen the English capital as the location of their works, from colossal to independent films.
Here are the 21 best films set in London you must see!
We will analyse the first five more in depth, to leave more room for your curiosity with the next sixteen.
The post-war period for London was not a great time. Exhausted and half-destroyed by the Nazi bombings, the city struggled to recover.
It regained a central role, at least on the European scene, only in the 1960s, when the so-called swinging London was born; a modern, dynamic city, where the music of the British invasion mixed with fashion. A city that Michelangelo Antonioni decided to portray in his first English-language film, Blow-Up, directed in 1966.
The film was a great success and became one of the most awarded of the Ferrara director’s career, earning the Palme d’Or at Cannes and two Oscar nominations. The plot was like a thriller, but completely atypical.
A fashion photographer who also has an interest in the social reality of the English capital runs into, at first without realizing it, a murder that occurs in a London park. His investigations, however, come to a standstill, until the protagonist even thinks he has imagined everything.
Central is the role of photography and its relationship with reality, while in the background the fashion of the time peeks out (also inspired by the playboy Gunter Sachs), the music of Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck’s Yardbirds, drugs and hippies.
- Notting Hill
There were, in the 60s and 70s, other films that tried to portray the English capital, such as A Clockwork Orange (in which the city was deformed by Kubrick’s eye) or Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, but it was, as we anticipated, only in the 1990s that London really made a comeback in the cinema.
Sliding Doors, Love Actually, Lock & Stock, About a Boy are just some of the many titles that could be mentioned. In many cases, they were polite comedies, often of love, in which a relevant role was given to some handsome English men. And the beauty par excellence, then, was undoubtedly Hugh Grant.
Notting Hill, released in 1999 under the direction of Roger Michell, was perhaps the most successful of this trend, scripted by that Richard Curtis who had a hand in many projects of the period. The story is simple, almost as a fairy-tale.
In the quaint neighbourhood of Notting Hill, young bookseller William Thacker stumbles upon a famous actress, Anna Scott, played by Julia Roberts. Love is born between the two, despite the fact that he is an ordinary man and she is a Hollywood diva.
To stand in the way, however, are fame and the paparazzi, so much so that the story is in danger of setting. Really shot in the streets of the picturesque London neighbourhood, the movie had a huge success: suffices to say that, costing 42 million dollars, it brought in about 500 in cinemas alone.
- Bridget Jones’s diary
Hugh Grant also returns in another blockbuster of the period, Bridget Jones’s Diary, released in theatres in 2001. In this case, the film was born from a literary, and indeed journalistic, antecedent.
Helen Fielding, the author, had in fact begun to tell the misadventures of 30-year-old Bridget in the columns of The Independent newspaper on a weekly basis. The success of the column then led her to publish a novel in 1996, capable of selling more than 10 million copies worldwide.
From there to the cinema the step was very short. Hired Hugh Grant, Colin Firth and above all Renée Zellweger, the film was scripted by Fielding herself together with Andrew Davies and Richard Curtis as usual and directed by Sharon Maguire.
A 30-year-old “unstable woman” played by Renée Zellweger
Loosely inspired by Pride and Prejudice, the story follows the adventures of a single 30-year-old, not particularly lucky in love, woman.
Torn between the handsome but unreliable Daniel Cleaver and the quieter, but seemingly boring and haughty, Mark Darcy, Bridget tries her way in life, even battling with weight issues and a few too many shots. The film shows various glimpses of London, from the Tate Modern to various (and real) pubs in the south-east of the capital.
Also in this case the economic response was excellent, because the 28 million dollars invested yielded 280. In addition, many praised Zellweger’s performance, which made the character very convincing.
The film had two sequels: What a mess, Bridget Jones !, released in 2004, and Bridget Jones’s Baby in 2016.
- V for Vendetta
Having exhausted the vein of romantic comedies, which brought so much success to the English cinema of the period, starting from the mid-2000s London has been the protagonist of different stories, sometimes dark and sometimes dramatic.
On the other hand, the time of light-heartedness, in the era of terrorist attacks and disaffection from politics, seemed to be over. In 2005 V for Vendetta was released, a film directed by James McTeigue and based on the comic V for Vendetta by Alan Moore.
To interpret the roles of the protagonists were called Hugo Weaving – who however is never clearly seen in the face – and Natalie Portman, while the screenplay was prepared by the Wachowski brothers, already authors of The Matrix.
Blowing up the Parliament
The story is that of a not too distant dystopian future, in which power in Great Britain was taken by a fascist-style party. With the annulment of individual freedoms in exchange for lasting internal peace, the government has persecuted all minorities (ethnic, religious and homosexual), also thanks to the control of the mass media.
Opposing all this is the elusive V, a terrorist who acts in the guise of Guy Fawkes – the historian responsible for the powder conspiracy – and who in the past was probably tortured by the regime.
London can be seen throughout the film, but it is above all the finale, with the explosion of the Parliament, that is emblematic and remains impressed in the eyes of the spectators.
- The king’s speech
We conclude the first part of our article with a very beautiful film, which in other times perhaps would have remained confined to intellectual circles, but which instead had a great international success.
We are talking about The King’s Speech, a 2010 film that is part of the trend – quite full-bodied in those years – of films dedicated to English royalty and their private life.
The stutter of George VI
At the center of the plot is this time King George VI, the father of Elizabeth II, who reigned over the British Empire between 1936 and 1952 and therefore went through the difficult period of the Second World War.
Based on the biography of Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue, the film tells the true story of the latter’s relationship with the king. George VI, in fact, suffered from a form of stuttering that made it difficult for him to speak in public.
This was no small problem in the era in which the radio entered all homes and the role of the sovereign became increasingly that of moral guide and support for his subjects. Hence, the decision of “Bertie”, at the insistence of his wife, to turn to the luminary from the colonies, who however had unorthodox methods.
Directed by Tom Hooper, the film is masterfully played by a trio of great actors: Colin Firth (who won the Academy Awards and the Golden Globe), Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter (both nominated for the two awards).
16 more films set in London, in addition to the 5 already reported
If the five films we have presented to you so far aren’t enough, there are many others set in London that deserve a view. Below you will find as promised other sixteen of good value and of very different genres.
- Happy go Lucky (2008)
The film tells the life of Poppy, a young elementary teacher. The whole film is set in north London and celebrates every aspect of it, from Camden Market to the liveliest clubs in the area.
- Attack the Block (2011)
In the film, a gang of five little thugs have to deal with a meteorite that crashes not far from them. It is a science fiction horror comedy set on a municipal estate in south London.
- Paddington (2014)
It is a very sweet film that has the most iconic places in London as a backdrop. Due to a terrible earthquake that devastates the rainforest of Peru, the home of a bear is destroyed and the cub goes to England in search of a new home.
- Rocks (2019)
The film tells the story of a Hackney student and her friends. The film is set in East London and offers one of the most joyful and lively portraits of the contemporary capital.
- “Small Axe” Mangrove (2020)
It is the first instalment of Small Ax, a British television miniseries created and directed by Steve McQueen. The whole story is set in and around the Mangrove restaurant on All Saint’s Road
- Passport to Pimlico (1949)
It is a comedy whose plot talks about a small area of London that proclaimed itself independent and therefore exempt from the food rationing of the time. The film earned Oscar and Bafta nominations for screenplay.
- The Ladykiller (1955)
It is a black comedy in which Alec Guinness’ gang of ruthless criminals commits a robbery on a van at Kings Cross station. The criminals will be framed by the brilliant Mrs. Wilberforce.
- Mary Poppins (1964)
The world-famous musical shows two opposite sides of London at the time: from the grandeur of the Banks family home to the soot-filled roofs dominated by chimney sweeps.
- Performance (1970)
The film explores the world of a bohemian living in West London. It stars James Fox and Mick Jagger, the latter making his acting debut.
- The Long Good Friday (1980)
The film’s story revolves around the leader of a gang of criminals from the East End of London who seeks to extend his power but will find himself battling many unknown enemies.
- My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)
Directed by Stephen Frears and adapted from a screenplay by Hanif Kureshi, the film is a gay coming-of-age tale set in London during the Thatcher years.
- Naked (1993)
Written and directed by Mike Leigh, the film tells the story of an unemployed philosopher who vents his existential anger by letting himself be involved in a series of dubious adventures in a night and surreal London.
- Sliding Doors (1998)
This cult film follows the double fate of Helen, played by Gwyneth Paltrow. The story branches out in two directions, depending on whether the protagonist manages to reach the subway in time or not.
- About a boy (2002)
The protagonist of the film is Will, played by Hugh Grant, who befriends the young and problematic Marcus. The whole film is a celebration of contemporary London in its ordinary, yet fascinating form.
- 28 Days Later (2002)
Danny Boyle’s film is about a virus that escapes from a British research laboratory. From that moment an epidemic broke out that spreads for 28 days and the survivors will be forced to reunite to escape from London.
- Dawn of the Dead (2004)
It is the only horror comedy set around Crouch End, in the London suburbs. This is the first chapter of the Cornetto Trilogy, which also includes Hot Fuzz (2007) and The worlds end (2013).
Words: Deborah Melchiorre | Subbing: Bethan Adams