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12 Of Our Favorite London-Set Movies To Get You Through The Olympics

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist July 27, 2012 at 2:59PM

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London
London Snap

Photo courtesy of the beautiful images found at London Snap.

Tonight, the 2012 Summer Olympics will kick off in London, and while our tolerance for sporting events is relatively low, we're a bit excited. In part, it's because it's taking place in the city where this writer was born, raised and still lives, and in part it's because the opening ceremony was masterminded by British filmmaker Danny Boyle, the man behind films like "Trainspotting" and "Slumdog Millionaire."

It promises to be an impressive spectacle, but after that, what's a film fan to do? So, to commemorate the opening of the games, and partly as an antidote to them, we've assembled a mini film festival of 12 (see what we did?) of our favorite London-based movies. Not ones that merely use the city as a picture-postcard backdrop (Woody Allen, we're looking at you...) but those that really capture the feel of the city we know so well.

So if you're elsewhere in the world, you can get in on the Olympic spirit without watching a single televised archery event by putting on a selection of the films below. And if you're in London for the games, or at any time in the future, we've also put together a little tourist trail of locations from our chosen films. Check them out below. And if we've missed your favorite London-set movies, feel free to fight their corner in the comments section below.

Oliver Twist
"Oliver Twist" (1948)
One of the most oft-filmed tales in British cinema, Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist" has never been better adapted than in David Lean's 1948 version (with musical take "Oliver!" and Roman Polanski's recent one the best known otherwise). The director made his first masterpiece with another Dickens tale, "Great Expectations," two years before, and while this can't quite match it (principally because the source material isn't as good), it's in many ways more Dickensian, in part because of its depiction of the workhouses and streets of Victorian London so often associated with the author, which are likely still influential not just on retellings of this tale, but on all cinematic looks at London of the 1800s. It looks stunning, with an almost Expressionist influence, thanks to DoP Guy Green, and the acting (including future pop star Anthony Newley as the Artful Dodger) is strong across the board, not least from Alec Guinness, unrecognizable as Fagin. His performance attracted criticism as anti-Semitic at the time; the film wasn't released until the U.S until 1951 as a result, and even then only heavily cut. But it's much less of a caricature than Dickens' original text, and seeing as the film was banned in Egypt for making Fagin too sympathetic, one suspects they were doing something right. That controversy aside, Lean still tells the story in as sleek and propulsive a manner as anyone ever has, and gives a definitive portrait of London in the process.
Tourist Trail: In Dickens' novel, Fagin's hang-out is in Saffron Hill, Farringdon. Obviously changed since the book was published, it's now full of offices for the most part, but there's a wealth of good restaurants and bars nearby if you do end up in the area.

It Always Rains On Sunday
"It Always Rains On Sunday" (1947)
After this summer, Londoners will know that it doesn't just always rain on Sunday, it always rains on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday too. But it's nothing compared to the constant sheet of rain that accompanies the events of Robert Hamer's semi-forgotten classic, one of the best British films of its period, and perhaps the most convincing example of the London noir picture. Rose (the excellently-named Googie Withers) is an ordinary woman in Bethnal Green -- not a stone's throw from where the Olympic Stadium is now -- not long married to an older man  (Edward Chapman) with two teenage daughters, and struggling to get through the day in a post-war Britain still suffering from rationing. It's all upended one Sunday when her first and truest love Tommy (John McCallum) appears after breaking out of prison. Still in love with him, she hides him away, but the pressure gets greater and greater as the police and press close in, leading to tragic consequences for all. What's most impressive about the film is the way that Hamer (who'd made his Ealing directorial debut with a segment of classic portmanteau horror "Dead Of Night," and would next go on to helm the comedy classic "Kind Hearts & Coronets") keeps the tension impossibly taut, even while expanding the world of the film wider and wider, bringing in more and more characters to paint a picture not just of this one family, but of the East End as well. It's surprisingly realistic and uncompromising too, given the time period, and formally forward-looking, with flashbacks and a complex narrative structure. Of all the films on this list, we'd wager that this is the one you haven't seen, which is an awful shame, but the Olympics seems as good an excuse as any to take another look.
Tourist Trail: The Bethnal Green area in which the film was set didn't change for much of the 20th century, although like much of East London, it's become something of a hipster hang-out of late. Our recommended stop would be the Bethnal Green Working Men's Club, which, for the most part, is a traditional meeting and drinking spot that probably hasn't changed much since the film's day, although it now hosts club nights and film screenings in the evening, as well as hosting the cutting-edge comedy club Deansway's in the basement.

Passport To Pimlico
"Passport To Pimlico" (1949)
A sort of comic flipside to the same kind of post-Blitz world seen in "It Always Rains On Sunday," Ealing's "Passport To Pimlico" has the kind of high concept that would make Hollywood executives today pull a muscle in the rush to reach for the checkbooks. A leftover bomb detonates in Pimlico (an area of central London next to Westminster), revealing a buried cellar full of treasure, along with a parchment that reveals that the land and the spoils belongs to the residents, under the Duke of Burgundy. As Burgundy no longer exists, Pimlico essentially becomes an independent nation within London, and one that isn't subject to the same laws and rationing as the rest of Britain. This causes the government to become increasingly infuriated with the new duchy, breaking off relations, and cutting supplies and power. All ends happily, but it's a deceptively sharp and politically-minded film, dressed up as light comedy, with strong parallels to the then-current Berlin Blockade, and resonates with the bombardment of London that was only a few years gone, its scars still visible on the locations (actually shot in Lambeth, rather than Pimlico). Which is not to say that it's dull or somber; it remains crowd-pleasing and genuinely funny, even if one suspects it played even better at the time. As far as films about London and Londoners go, it's hard to find something more heartwarming or satisfying than this one. No one's tried to remake it yet, but if it does ever have to happen, Joe Cornish is the man for the job.
Tourist Trail: Almost totally rebuilt and regenerated since the days of the film (aside from the impressive Regency-era houses that survived the bombings), Pimlico is a principally residential area, and as such isn't likely to be on many tourist's maps. If you are in the area, the Tate Britain, one of the best galleries in the city, is your best bet; it's home to an exhibition on "London" director Patrick Keiller at present. Alternatively, the Queen Mother Sports Centre is this writer's local gym, so you could come spot for us or something.

This article is related to: Features, Attack The Block, Best Of


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