Posts tagged ‘London’

As a (slight but long-term) fan of London’s Saint Etienne I’d been meaning to watch the trilogy of short films they made with director Paul Kelly for some time. Examining three different aspects of London, the body of work is made up of Finisterre (2003), What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day? (2005) and This Is Tomorrow (2007), each one being around an hour long and a kind of wistful meditation on the changing face of the city (and thus as they deal to various extents with the past, present and future Saint Etienne’s very distinct brand of retro-futurism seems like a good fit for the soundtrack to me, for they are a band that has always looked back to classic European and American pop and also to more modern sounds of the dancefloor, albeit filtered through the lens of white pop classicists). I understand that the fourth collaboration between band and filmmaker, 2014’s How We Used To Live  a collage about 20th century living that uses British Film Institute archive footage, and which I haven’t yet watched sits seperately from these earlier works.


Finisterre poster

Finisterre, co-directed by Kelly with Kieran Evans, is a modern take on the city symphony film, the footage darting from spots in suburban London a few of which I definitely recognised, a few that seemed familiar, many that I don’t currently know and probably never will – to more recognisable yet characterful places in the centre. The band and others, such as artist Julian Opie and musician Lawrence from the acts Felt, Denim and Go Kart Mozart (who would later be the subject of Kelly’s 2012 film Lawrence of Belgravia) discuss the places that mean something to them, which tend to be old, traditional cafes, gig venues, record shops, pubs and other places along those lines. But that’s not all; there are wide-reaching cityscapes, close-ups of boarded-up shops and everything in-between. The directors show a knack for catching small architectural details, interesting graffiti and stencils (the latter still a relatively new artistic phenomenon back then), and they use typography as a means of tracking changing times and design fashion, an approach that is consistent across all three films. It’s a fleeting glimpse of a city in flux, and it does to an extent feel like a personal one: this is Kelly and Saint Etienne’s London, primarily, not yours or mine, even if there is some overlap with the types of faces and places you see. The South Bank, Camden, Chalk Farm, Soho, Croydon… Finisterre darts from one spot to the next, knitting it all together, and the emphasis on London’s music scene and nightlife makes it seem warm and positive.

The voices of born and bred locals are more to the fore in What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day?, a 45-minute short about Hackney Wick and the lower Lee Valley in London’s East End (pictured top). Watching today, this is the part of the trilogy that feels to me like the most valuable snapshot, given that the area of the city it examines has been heavily gentrified in the years since it was made, and is markedly different now to how it was in 2005. Kelly spoke to the BFI in 2014 about the three films, addressing the remaking and remodelling of the era. “There was a lot of change going on in London, but we didn’t necessarily see that as a negative thing,” he said. “London was being revitalised. But we wanted to document anything that we thought was going. At the time, there were lots of places that we thought ‘We’ve got to capture this,’ but by the time we got there it would be gone. There was a sense that things were going very fast. It seems to be changing even faster now, accelerating at a pace.”


Still from What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day?

Mervyn Day the title is a rather niche reference to a 1970s goalkeeper who played for local teams West Ham United and Leyton Orient is an atmospheric portrait, proudly examining the area’s industrial and sporting past, finding plenty of time for the waterways, overgrown and neglected corners and crumbling, condemned buildings of 2005. There are hints of the present and future: radio reports of the London terror attacks are incorporated, while the then-recently successful bid to host the 2012 Olympics is referred to in hopeful terms by some, who correctly identified it back then as an opportunity for renewal, collaboration and sporting endeavour.

East London’s gentrification was already well underway by 2005. As Kelly pointed out to the BFI, it was the influx of artists taking advantage of cheap rent in Hoxton and Dalston during the late 1990s that kicked it all off, but it went through the roof immediately after this film was made. However, as one resident points out on the soundtrack, this is a part of London that has regularly seen periods of dramatic change, partly due to its proximity to the Thames and the City of London (ie the financial district). The arrival of larger numbers of younger, middle-class professionals than normal is nothing new for an area that had just previously welcomed a large influx of Bangladeshi residents, or had seen a sizeable portion of the community’s white working class families move out of London into Kent and Essex. I’ve walked around here a couple of times in 2018. Some edges are still tatty; not everything has changed.

There’s a surprising amount of dereliction on show in this film, considering how close everything depicted is to one of the wealthiest square miles and some of the most valuable property in the entire world, but it’s all shown for a purpose, to highlight lost industries, to demonstrate how things  places, communities, events  can be forgotten, or how economic shifts take place and the use of land changes. Our guide through all of it is a mopey teenage lad on a bike, perhaps a Saint Etienne fan, perhaps a future Olympian, while David Essex and Linda Robson – defiantly uncool but absolutely inspired choices of celebs who were raised in the area – provide commentary.


DVD cover

Of the three films, I was less enamoured with This Is Tomorrow, which charts the building, role and later renovation of the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank, but it’s still well worth a watch. The area was bombed during the Second World War; the building of the concert hall as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951 helped to put south London on the map, so to speak; and much has sprung up around it since, so it fits with some of the trilogy’s overarching themes, such as London’s changing face and land being used for different purposes. Kelly’s eye for detail is evident once again and there’s an interesting selection of interviewees, including philosopher Alain de Botton. Also present is Robin Day, one of the most significant furniture designers of the 20th century, whose seats adorn the hall. The film was commissioned by the Royal Festival Hall itself (or rather the people who work in it and for it), and as such it’s more of a conventional documentary than the other two films in A London Trilogy, somehow less personal and by necessity rendering the people of London irrelevant.

I felt sad watching the three films; I see here the London that I moved to, albeit in 1999 rather than 2003, 2005 or 2007. What I should say, then, is that I definitely see the London I lived in for many years. I also felt a degree of warmth towards the films which came, oddly enough, because of Kelly’s insistence on poking around in dingy, messy corners of the capital. You don’t see these spaces committed to film too often, and I think such scenes here are part of a kind of more general, quiet celebration that I’m glad exists.

The London Trilogy is available to watch on BFI Player in the UK and can be purchased from lots of the usual outlets.

I’m not familiar with Tom McCarthy’s novel, on which this film is based, but I suspect first-time director Omer Fast shed a fair amount of extraneous information when working on the screenplay. In its cinematic guise Remainder is a sparse puzzle thriller, a film that concentrates on drawing the viewer slowly into an infernal loop, employing the kind of surprise/strange ending that manages to shed some light on certain aspects of the narrative that were unclear while also presenting the viewer with a series of new questions to ponder.

Tom Sturridge stars as an unnamed man who we first encounter leaving a large glass building in central London, dragging a bag behind him. He looks panicked, and catches the eye of a woman (Cush Jumbo) who appears to be following him. Suddenly a pile of debris falls from the sky above and hits him, leaving him in a coma. Fast forward several months and the man wakes up to find that a lawyer has been working on his behalf, and that he is due a large settlement fee as a result of the accident; it’s hush money from the owners of the building in question, though, and the condition upon receipt is that he never discusses what happened to him. The man accepts the money, but he struggles to adapt to normal life after discharging himself from the hospital: he is unsteady on his feet, he sees confusing images and he is wary of the people who claim to know him, including an old friend and two men who say that they are police officers. As his frustration increases he resolves to fill in some of the gaps in his memory.


Tom Sturridge (right) in Remainder

Though Remainder is a more unsettling film, there are shades of Christopher Nolan’s Memento here: both keep their audiences confused and in the dark for the most part, while both are also concerned with memory loss, their protagonists relying on the repetition of certain actions to help them remember key facts. However, during the second act Remainder takes a turn for the weird, and I suppose a closer cousin from this point on would be Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (in fact at the time of release of Synecdoche Kaufman had to issue a statement saying that any resemblance between his film and McCarthy’s novel was purely coincidental). Without wishing to give too much away the man begins to spend vast sums of money employing a fixer (Arsher Ali) to help him create a version of the apartment building he used to live in prior to the accident, employing actors to play his neighbours, and accurately stage-managing their performances so that certain actions, appearances, sounds and smells are identical to the way that he remembers them. The man’s memory begins to improve, slowly, but where is this leading him?

There are several shots here in which the protagonist clears misted-up windows, and one scene at a telephone box in which his hands trace a pattern that has been scratched on to glass, which may or may not be significant, depending on your reading of the film. It’s clear that a second viewing will be rewarding, full of significant-but-small moments that help to illuminate the story. Remainder is a clever, well-planned film, although it lacks the high quality editing that helped to make Memento such an invigorating head-spinner (not that the editing’s bad here, I hasten to add). Sadly some members of the supporting cast suffer as a result of their characters being severely underwritten, too, though the clear intention is to keep the focus on Sturridge’s soft-spoken, dogged and apparently-ruthless main character. This individual is a perplexed and increasingly angry man who can’t really turn to anyone close or familiar for help, and Sturridge plays the part well, creating an enigmatic protagonist who you’re never quite sure about; there are few deliberate attempts here to engender sympathy for him, despite the accident and subsequent hospital stay he endures, and despite the fact he’s the nearest thing the film has to a ‘hero’.

Remainder also features impressive, minimalist production design by Adrian Smith, which – aside from a number of scenes shot on a street corner in Brixton – tends to reduce central London to a kind of characterless, corporate hell-hole; there’s something off-kilter about it, as if there’s a lack of specific detail on the streets and in the interior spaces, which contrasts directly with the protagonist’s obsessive attention to detail as he stages his own personal reconstructions. It also fits perfectly with some of the ideas of the film that gradually become prominent during the final act, which suggest or explain the fate of the protagonist. Fast’s screenplay only ever drip feeds information, and leaves plenty of room for interpretation, but if you’re fine with being all at sea the film eventually rewards patient viewers with answers to some of the questions, and there’s a well-judged pay-off to boot. This is an intelligent, well-paced and intriguing debut feature.

Directed by: Omer Fast.
Written by: Omer Fast. Based on Remainder by Tom McCarthy.
Starring: Tom Sturridge, Cush Jumbo, Ed Speelers, Arsher Ali, Shaun Prendergrast, Laurence Spellman.
Cinematography: Lukas Strebel.
Editing: Andrew Bird.
Running Time:
103 minutes.


As I don’t have kids I tend to miss quite a lot of family-oriented films when they’re on at the cinema, like this update of the Paddington books and TV show. I’m glad I caught up with it at long last, as I enjoyed it way more than I was expecting to, and found myself chuckling along throughout; more than I tend to during most adult-oriented comedies, in fact. Paul King – who directed all three seasons of surreal comedy show The Mighty Boosh – is the man behind it, and he has created a winning blend of slapstick silliness and altogether smarter jokes, while also incorporating a timely subtext about London’s history of immigration, (eventual) tolerance and (eventual) acceptance, which made me ponder whether our detestable, oily snake of a Prime Minister has seen the film. The soundtrack, not without reason, features calypso played by a group of British African-Caribbean men.

The story of Paddington (entirely CGI here and voiced by Ben Whishaw), the bear from ‘darkest Peru’ (eeesh!), is well-known. The nice middle-class family who find him and take him in are the Browns, led by Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins, and to a certain extent they remind me of the Banks family in Mary Poppins. Even their home, which is creatively depicted as a doll’s house on a couple of occasions, is a modern version of the smart townhouse in Disney’s classic, and there’s a nice nod to Julie Andrews’ iconic umbrella flight here too (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and Raiders Of The Lost Ark also provide inspiration during the finale). Naturally after Paddington settles into his new surroundings a feature length story requires some adventure and danger for narrative propulsion, and Nicole Kidman’s evil taxidermist is introduced as a kind of wicked witch / Cruella de Vil-style villain. I really like Nicole Kidman here – quite simply she is great fun to watch – and she teams up with an equally-amusing Peter Capaldi, whose nosy neighbour is just one of the many send-ups of an old-fashioned, fussy England, a place where there are ’42 words for rain’ and meat paste sandwiches are still considered a delicacy.

King’s writing is sound: simple enough for young children to follow, but clever enough to keep adults interested and entertained. His warm-hearted film largely eschews crazy set pieces, save for breathless chases along Portobello Road or through the Natural History Museum, and instead relies on tried-and-tested sight gags, double takes, cutaways and other comedy staples (Hugh Bonneville in drag is far funnier than it ought to be). There are a couple of mis-steps – Jim Broadbent’s supporting turn as an antiques dealer doesn’t quite click, but is fairly short anyway – but otherwise I liked all of the performances; as well as those mentioned above Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon provide voices for other bears, while Julie Walters steals every one of her scenes as the Brown family’s live-in cleaner. Paddington is streets ahead of most of the family-friendly films that I’ve seen in the past twenty years, and funnier than the majority of comedies I’ve watched in that time too, so it’s no surprise it did so well at the box office.

Directed by: Paul King.
Written by: Paul King, Hamish McColl. Based on Paddington Bear by Michael Bond.
Starring: Ben Whishaw, Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Nicole Kidman, Madeleine Harris, Samuel Joslin, Julie Walters, Peter Capaldi, Michael Gambon, Imelda Staunton.
Cinematography: Erik Wilson.
Editing: Mark Everson.
Music: Nick Urata, D Lime featuring Tobago Crusoe, Various.
Running Time: 
95 minutes.


Though the title references the second coming of Jesus Christ, this debut drama by playwright-turned-director Debbie Tucker Green largely keeps Christianity out of the story, which is concerned with a Londoner’s unexplained pregnancy and the effect it has on her life and her immediate family. Suggestions of a miracle or an immaculate conception taking place are present, but are generally and suggestively left on the periphery, with Green choosing instead to concentrate on the familiar: first and foremost this is a kitchen sink drama (occasionally, like last year’s Glassland, in a literal sense), although there are some flights of fancy as pregnant Jax (Nadine Marshall, excellent) experiences strange, watery visions in her bathroom. Aside from those jarring and increasingly-disturbing interjections it’s a film that is firmly rooted in the routine of modern life: cooking, eating, sleeping, working, Sunday lunch with family, and so on.

We follow Jax’s entire term from start to finish, and obviously as a result the narrative occasionally skips forward several weeks or months at a time. She can offer no explanation for the pregnancy to those around her and can’t seem to find any answers from medical professionals. Jax’s 20-year relationship with railway engineer Mark (Idris Elba, every bit as good as we have come to expect) is partly characterised at this point in time by its lack of a sex life, something that Mark is struggling to accept, and somewhat understandably their lack of intercourse during the previous months informs his reaction when he hears the news that she is expecting. It’s also revealed that she has had four miscarriages in the past, though the couple have had one child together, the 11-year-old JJ (Kai Francis Lewis, also very impressive). So it this a miracle, or is Jax repressing an earlier unseen assault, or is there some other explanation? The ambiguity never dissipates, and it informs the mood of Green’s film throughout.

The majority of scenes take place in Jax and Mark’s house. Occasionally the action shifts to Jax’s place of work (a benefits office), or her car, while there are several passages that follow sensitive, nature-loving JJ that are set in a nearby park or heath. These bucolic interludes provide the film with its most obvious birth- and rebirth-related symbol a wounded bird that also has its own miraculous story while they also make for an interesting contrast to the majority of London-set films I’ve seen recently, which seem to go out of their way to cram as many recognisable locations in as possible, perhaps trying too hard to turn the city into a living, breathing character. Cinematographer Urszula Pontikos uses a lot of close-ups, both inside and outside of the family home, and these block out a lot of the contextual information with regard to location or the immediate environment of the characters, but more importantly they allow us to study the character’s reactions to certain lines and events without being distracted. Second Coming is, after all, a character-driven piece.

There are moments that jolt and surprise: a bitter row between Jax and Mark takes place off-screen, and throughout the camera rests on JJ, who isn’t allowed to leave the room even when his parents’ heated discussion descends into points-scoring; Jax’s aggressive, awkward sister Sandra (Seroca Davis) briefly enters the fray on a couple of occasions and acts like the proverbial bull in a china shop; and there are the aforementioned ‘visions’ that Jax experiences in the bathroom. The rest of it may be a little slow for some tastes, and many viewers who do not live in London will probably struggle with the London Afro-Caribbean dialect (or, to give it its more general and academic term, MLE); but those who give the underseen Second Coming a try will be rewarded with an engrossing family story and a trio of strong acting performances by the three leads.

Directed by: Debbie Tucker Green.
Written by: Debbie Tucker Green.
Starring: Nadine Marshall, Idris Elba, Kai Francis Lewis.
Cinematography: Urszula Pontikos.
Editing: Mark Eckersley.
Running Time:
103 minutes.


There are certain documentary filmmakers that I’ve belatedly discovered since starting this blog; I caught my third Albert Maysles film earlier this year, watched my first by Chantal Akerman a couple of months ago, and National Gallery is my first exposure to the work of the revered Frederick Wiseman, now in his mid-80s and with close to 50 films in his back catalogue. It’s nice to have so many unseen films by these three lying ahead, if a little daunting, but in terms of Wiseman’s work National Gallery seems like an accessible starting point, and perhaps an apt one seeing as it’s his most recent (In Jackson Heights played in a few film festivals recently, but is not on general release in the UK yet, as far as I’m aware).

London’s National Gallery is a space that I’m very familiar with: having lived in the city for fifteen years I’ve probably visited around ten or fifteen times, from brief one hour pre-pub drop-ins to entire days spent pacing the rooms and generally being overawed by the impressive collection. It features work by da Vinci, van Gogh, Turner, Holbein, van Eyck, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Tintoretto, Bruegel, Monet, Manet, Rousseau, Caravaggio, Goya, Canaletto and Rembrandt, among others, and many of the paintings by these artists are foregrounded in Wiseman’s documentary about the institution, the camera lingering on the artworks or occassionally pulling back to show the way members of the public act or interact with them. Wiseman is less interested in the gallery’s visitors than its employees, but I like the fact that the focus is on the latter, as a lot of the behind-the-scenes footage included here is fascinating. I’d warrant that we see nearly all of the National Gallery’s employees, from scholars and guides to those in charge of its budgets, from framemakers and decorators to those who care for and restore its paintings, and while we do not get to know any of them personally it’s more about marvelling at the collective knowledge, skill and enthusiasm. The film is three hours long, and if that sounds like a chore then I will point out that the exact opposite is the case; it’s calm, and often quiet, but National Gallery is never boring or tedious. My only negative comment is utterly flippant: how did Wiseman, who usually films for between four and six weeks in such places, ensure it was so quiet (aside from the footage of so-called ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions)? The last time I visited the National Gallery, a couple of years ago, it had reached saturation point in terms of the number of people crowding the more popular works and taking selfies or photos of the paintings. Anyway, I digress: this is an excellent film, and please don’t be put off by its length.

Directed by: Frederick Wiseman.
Cinematography: John Davey, Frederick Wiseman.
Editing: Frederick Wiseman.
Running Time:
180 minutes.


HyenaIs there a sub-genre with a reputation worse than the British gangster film at the moment? Granted the occasional gem appears once in a while but for longer than I care to remember an unhealthy percentage of releases have been of middling quality, go straight to the supermarket shelves and are (or look as though they are) riddled with clichés, many of which I’m sure you’ll be familiar with: shotgun-toting cockney geezers, scenes in strip clubs, Eastern European criminals, corrupt police officers (aka ‘bent coppers’) and young, up-and-coming protagonists are usually the order of the day, and if you’re really unlucky you might catch a film containing all of the above and an appearance by Vinnie Jones. Little wonder they’re mercilessly lampooned by sketches such as this one.

Gerard Johnson’s Hyena contains several of these tropes but is much better than such a statement suggests, and has more in common with downbeat dramas like Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa, David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises and Paul Andrew Williams’ London To Brighton than, say, Guy Ritchie’s Snatch. The story revolves around a corrupt drug squad officer by the name of Michael Logan (Peter Ferdinando), who hoovers up the spoils of his raids with three racist, coke-fiend colleagues (played by Neil Maskell, Gordon Brown and Tony Pitts); we are introduced to them as they shake down a west London nightclub and dish out a few unnecessarily brutal beatings to the patrons, owners and staff, which seems to be a ‘normal’ night’s work for these officers, each of whom seems to have rejected the idea of a moral code being at all relevant to the job at hand. Logan’s superiors turn a blind eye to his criminal activities because they’re more concerned with meeting monthly arrest quotas, and he is instrumental in helping them achieve their targets. However he does have enemies within the Met: Richard Dormer’s smug CID Detective Inspector is out to get him, for one, as is Stephen Graham’s grudge-bearing former partner, who re-enters Logan’s life as a superior officer.

At the beginning of the story, which was also written by Johnson, Logan is about to go into business with a Turkish drug dealer when a pair of rival Albanian thugs suddenly appear and violently put an end to such plans. Much of the plot involves Logan’s subsequent dealings with this pair of drug- and human-trafficking psychopaths, played by Orli Shuka and Gjevat Kelmendi, and their relationship eventually turns sour after the policeman uncharacteristically tries to help Alina (Elisa Lasowski), a woman who has been smuggled into the UK for prostitution.

So yeah, Hyena‘s subject matter is grim, and several disturbing scenes lie within its 110 minutes, but the comparisons that have been made between Johnson’s film and the work of Nicolas Winding Refn seem wide of the mark to me. One or two shots here are gratuitous, but we’re talking about fleeting moments, and although the depiction of violence towards women (and prostitutes in particular) is understandably unpleasant to watch it should be noted that Johnson sought the input of Eaves, a charity that offers support for vulnerable women, while making the film. Similarly while this has been somewhat predictably referred to as ‘England’s Bad Lieutenant‘ because of its amoral central character, it’s actually far closer in tone to those films mentioned a couple of paragraphs above than any American release I can think of.

There’s a suitably moody, synth-heavy soundtrack by Matt Johnson (credited to his old band, The The) while cinematographer Benjamin Kračun shoots London as a gloomy city, pallid during the day and reliant on flashes of neon for colour at night, while in terms of locations the director generally opts for nondescript roads, Brutalist tower blocks, betting shops and rancid, smoke-stained pubs (each of which seems to have held out thus far against the jointly-spreading viruses of beards and craft beer); even the more lively and colourful environs of Soho’s Old Compton Street carry an unfamiliar menace here. In truth I haven’t seen London look this London on the big screen for quite some time, even though I’m hardly au fait with the seedy underbelly depicted or the activities that take place.

The story does drift a little at times and an attempt at an ambiguous ending sadly misses the mark, but Hyena still sits ahead of the pack thanks to its stylish look and its effective performances. Johnson even finds time for a dash of humour: at one point when the Albanians are waiting for Logan to return to his flat they watch an old Norman Wisdom film on TV; bizarrely Wisdom became incredibly popular in Albania as he was one of the few Western actors whose films were played in the country during the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha.

Directed by: Gerard Johnson.
Written by: Gerard Johnson.
Starring: Peter Ferdinando, Stephen Graham, Neil Maskell, Orli Shuka, Gjevat Kelmendi, Elisa Lasowski, MyAnna Buring, Richard Dormer, Gordon Brown, Tony Pitts.
Cinematography: Benjamin Kračun.
Editing: Ian Davies.
Music: The The.
Certificate: 18.
Running Time: 112 minutes.
Year: 2015.

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Since 2006 the prolific Julien Temple has made documentary films about the Glastonbury Festival, the band Dr Feelgood, Joe Strummer, the city of Detroit and Ray and Dave Davies, brothers and ex-members of The Kinks. Taking its title from a quote by Benjamin Disraeli, he has also made this frenetic study of his hometown, London, which careers along at breakneck pace from the end of the Victorian age to the present day, tracing the city’s social, physical and cultural changes along the way.

This psychogeographical film opens with the oldest known footage of the city, from the birth of cinema at the turn of the 20th Century, offering a fascinating glimpse into the pre-car and pre-war years. As is his style, Temple then fills the next two hours with a collage of interviews, music, archive footage, and clips from film and television shows in order to tell the story of England’s capital (or at least certain aspects of it). It is often difficult to take everything in, as the footage changes abruptly and often and the soundtrack rarely stays with one song for more than 20 or 30 seconds. Only when interviewees are speaking does the film settle down, the camera trained reverentially upon the speakers as they impart pearls of wisdom while discussing the many ways in which the city has changed during the last hundred years.

In The Modern Babylon London is revealed to be a city that has constantly renewed itself, with successive waves of migrant workers gradually arriving from around the world and – over time – establishing their own communities within the capital. Some first and second generation immigrants are interviewed, detailing their experiences in the city and the difficulties faced when trying to settle.

It is also a city that has seen a large amount of civil disobedience in its history and the past 100 years are no different; there is footage here of the Brixton riots in the early 1980s, the Sidney Street siege, the Battle of Cable Street, the 1990 poll tax riots, the 2011 summer riots, and much more. In fact you would think from watching the film that Londoners like nothing more than kicking off a long, violent riot or some other disturbance after taking afternoon tea. It’s true. In fact as soon as I’ve finished writing this I’m going to knock a policeman’s helmet off and vigorously deface a stamp with the Queen’s image on it.)

The film also addresses the two world wars and, in particular, the damage caused during The Blitz. It examines the depression era, post-war austerity, the 2005 bombings, the IRA’s campaign and the stock market crashes of the late 1980s and early 1990s, focusing on the reaction of the city’s resilient inhabitants after these events. With all the footage of unrest, greed, tragedy and anger it’s not a particularly flattering portrait of the city at times, but it’s arguably a very ‘real’ and accurate one, as London often feels as though it is a tinderbox, ready to go up in flames at any minute. In part this is due to the way the city is mixed together; while there are rich and poor areas there are no ghettos in the same sense that they exist in some other cities. Often the million pound plus mansions are over the road or round the corner from the tower blocks, and the large divisions in class coupled with this mix can sometimes lead to explosions of violence and crime. Thankfully the tone of the film is just right: the documentary is solemn when it ought to be, but it isn’t just one long patchwork of bomb and riot footage.

It unsurprisingly pokes fun at the Thatcher years, and one excellent sequence dealing with the rise of acid house includes manipulated footage of the recently departed ex-Prime Minister strutting her stuff to some club music of the time – amusing to those who remember her government’s desire to kill the movement through its draconian legislation. The documentary celebrates London as a cultural leader in terms of music, theatre, art and film. It champions Soho as a haven for outsiders, the docklands as the traditional engine room of the city, and the integral River Thames as the most important natural feature. And yet, somewhat refreshingly, it ignores most of the city’s famous landmarks: Piccadilly Circus, for example, only appears to illustrate the arrival of neon signs.

Temple, an ex-punk, is perhaps a little too infatuated with the punk scene of the late 1970s and the music and attitude that came out of it: while The Clash, The Sex Pistols and other punk acts appear with regularity there is sadly only brief footage of The Rolling Stones or The Who, two London bands that contributed heavily to the city’s 20th Century musical legacy; perhaps Temple feels punk is the one music scene that truly represented London and what the city is about, but there’s a sad feeling of predictability when Malcolm McLaren appears in an old interview. It’s also disappointing that the documentary has little or no place for sport: football in particular is tied in with the culture of the city in the 20th Century onwards and has been hugely important in terms of its social history. That the film fails to acknowledge this is a little baffling.

Still, when attempting to tell the story of a city of this size there are so many angles to choose from it’s inevitable that certain elements and tales will be omitted; it’s unlikely Temple set out to make a definitive history of London, but instead selected subjects about the city that he himself found most interesting, and to be fair he covers a hell of a lot with this film. It is a hyperactive documentary, cleverly edited (despite the witty inclusion of footage at the end of a chimpanzee randomly selecting cinema reels in an archive room, Temple has selected some brilliant footage and has put it together inventively; one can only imagine the time he has spent making this film). It’s an enjoyable and fascinating study of a city that has grown so large it cannot possibly ever stand still: a must-see for Londoners, and probably very interesting to the wider world too.

The Basics:

Directed by: Julien Temple
Written by: Julien Temple
Starring: Michael Gambon, Tony Benn, Suggs
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 128 Minutes
Year: 2012

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