By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com July 27, 2012 at 2:59PM
Although born in Hertfordshire, and raised in Salford (next to Manchester), Mike Leigh has, over the past forty-odd years, become the definitive London filmmaker -- what Woody Allen is to New York, or Fellini to Rome. As such, we could have filled this entire list with his films, from "Meantime" to his most recent feature "Another Year" (and indeed, he was picked, alongside Lynne Ramsay and Asif Kapadia, among others, to direct one of four Olympic short films -- U.K. viewers can watch his entry, "A Running Jump," here). But if we had to pick just one, it would be one of his less rose-tinted looks at the city, in the shape of 1993's "Naked." The protagonist, like Leigh, is a displaced Mancunian, in this case Johnny (an astonishing performance from David Thewlis), who escapes from the North after what appears to be a rape to stay with a former girlfriend (Lesley Sharp). Smart as a whip, but nihilistic, nasty and self destructive, he wanders the streets of London espousing his views to anyone who'll listen. If "The Long Good Friday" marked the start of the Thatcher era, "Naked" marks the end, and Thewlis, as the representative of the underclass, is balanced by Greg Cruttwell, as Sharp's psychotic yuppie landlord, a true child of Thatcher. We always find Leigh's gentle comedies of manners to be most effective when they have real edge to them, whether the skinheads of "Meantime," the back-street abortions of "Vera Drake" or even Eddie Marsan's short-fuse cab driver in "Happy-Go-Lucky," and "Naked" is by some distance his darkest and most brutal worldview, particularly in its depiction of the alienating streets of the big city, even if there's a strange dignity and pathos to Johnny's rantings (again, a testimony to Thewlis' performance as much as anything else). It's not a tourist's-eye-view of London as such, but one that still rings true nearly twenty years on.
Tourist Trail: Louise's flat is located on Shacklewell Lane in Dalston, East London, which has changed a good deal since the film shot; once principally home to the Turkish community of London, it's become a sanctuary for artists and hipsters priced out of nearby Shoreditch. Mangal Ocakbasi has the best Turkish food we've ever had, and for the archetypal Dalston night out, head to Efes Snooker Club, where you can drink cheep beer cans, play pool and listen to terrible R&B until the wee hours. The Rio is one of the best independent cinemas in London too, particularly their Sunday double bills.
"Dirty Pretty Things" (2002)
London, like all the great cities of the world, is a melting pot of different nationalities and cultures, and few films capture the reality of the immigrant experience in London better than Stephen Frears' "Dirty Pretty Things," which stands a decade on as one of the very best films from the chameleonic British director, and a fine portrait of the city in the 21st century. The film stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, in a breakout role, as Okwe, an illegal immigrant from Nigeria, who, despite having been a doctor at home, has to work both as a cab driver and at the front desk of a seedy hotel to make ends meet. He strikes up a friendship, which could be something more, with a new Turkish immigrant, Senay (Audrey Tautou, in a post-"Amelie" part that let her show her impressive range), but their problems are accelerated when Okwe finds a human heart in a toilet; surplus, as it turns out, from an illegal organs trade run by the hotel's manager, Juan (a chilling Sergi Lopez, of "With A Friend Like Harry" and "Pan's Labyrinth"). The script, like writer Steven Knight's other London-set tale "Eastern Promises," suffers from being a little too neat and conventional in its adherence to the thriller template in places, but it's also entirely refreshing in its view of an underbelly of London life that many inhabitants would rather ignore. It also features Frears at the top of this game, and a string of terrific performances, from Okwe's noble, but flawed, hero and Lopez's chilling villain to less prominent characters like prostitute Juliette (Sophie Okonedo) and mortuary worker Guo Yi (Benedict Wong). As Ejiofor's star continues to rise, it's certainly worth having a look if you missed it the first time around.
Tourist Trail: Okwe and Senay's flat is located in Dalston, and the sweatshop where she finds work is down in Greenwich, but the film's most prominent location, the fictional Baltic Hotel, shot its exteriors at 4 Whitehall Court, near Charing Cross station.
"Attack The Block" (2011)
And to close off, a film that's very recent, but one that in many ways owes a debt to much of the great cinema of London. The ragtag bunch of teen criminals and their own perma-stoned Fagin (Nick Frost) might have a little more edge than The Artful Dodger and co, but still owe a good deal to "Oliver Twist," while the way in which they come together with middle-class nurse Sam (Jodie Whittaker) and posh boy Brewis (Luke Treadaway) to battle an alien invasion is reminiscent of the pull-together Blitz spirit of something like "Passport To Pimlico." And the way that the tone marries social realism with horror-comedy certainly owes a debt to "An American Werewolf In London." The film's message -- that we should stop demonizing our youth, even in their indiscretions -- gained added relevance in last summer's riots, but that aside, it's still a raucously entertaining film that deservedly made director Joe Cornish one of the most hotly sought-after filmmakers around, and that fact makes us think that, as the years go on, its place among the other films here will be cemented more and more.
Tourist Trail: The film shot all over Joe Cornish's old stomping ground of South London, with locations in Brixton and Peckham, among others, while the opening sequence was filmed by Oval tube station. For us, the most memorable location is the expansive Heygate Estate, where much of the bike chase was filmed. But that's possibly because we used to live next door to it. The estate, which also served as a location for films like "Harry Brown" and Clint Eastwood's "Hereafter," is in the process of being demolished, so hurry along if you want to see it. The area, Elephant & Castle, was also the birthplace of Charlie Chaplin and Michael Caine, so it's steeped in film history as it is.