Most seasoned travellers are already au fait with London’s top sights, such as Buckingham Palace, Big Ben and the Tower of London. But to really know a city, you have to get a sense of its rich history and culture. London clearly has both in spades, and luckily, plenty of it has been captured on film through the decades, including structures and scenery that can no longer be seen. Through these films, you can appreciate not just present-day London, but its warring royalties, changing politics and dynamic, shifting communities.
1. Henry V (1944), by Laurence Olivier
You can’t talk about London without touching upon Shakespeare. From the lovingly restored Globe Theatre at Bankside by the River Thames to a bust of his head in Love Lane Gardens, the iconic playwright has left his mark all over the city. This adaptation of Henry V, one of Shakespeare’s many history plays, begins its narrative at the Globe, as it would have looked in the 1600s, and proceeds to give viewers a fantastic overview of life in London under the Tudors. Made towards the end of World War II, with giant of British theatre and cinema Laurence Olivier as both director and lead actor, it served as a consolation to a war-torn nation and a homage to the soldiers who fought on the battlefields of Europe, Asia and Africa.
2. Maurice (1987), by James Ivory
Spinning away from the perils of war and monarchy, this movie drops us right into the proverbial heart of Edwardian London. Based on the book of the same name by renowned English novelist EM Forster, who was born in London in 1879, this tale of forbidden love takes us into the deeply repressed, private lives of English society in the early 1900s. Though it starts off in Cambridge, a large part of the movie takes place in London, and features famous landmarks such as the British Museum, Linley Sambourne House and Oscar Wilde Lounge in Hotel Café Royal. For the titular character Maurice Hall, played by James Wilby, his move to London symbolises a big change in his life, and viewers can not only appreciate London in this period setting but further take in the streets as Maurice does – with the beaming eyes of youth.
3. A Hard Day’s Night (1964), by Richard Lester
With the 1960s came a brand-new swinging London, synonymous with the UK’s rapidly evolving post-war music, film and fashion scenes. The figurehead for this movement was undoubtedly The Beatles, four mop-haired lads who transformed the music industry and took the world by storm. They also headlined this one-of-a-kind, semi-fictional musical comedy where the group travels to London for a performance only to find themselves embroiled in a series of madcap encounters across the capital. Lester gives us a peek into the buzzing city at the very height of its cultural pomp, spotlighting key locations such as the grand Marylebone station, Notting Hill Gate and Les Ambassadeurs in Mayfair.
4. Burning an Illusion (1981), by Menelik Shabazz
Shot largely in Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove, this film follows the life of a young, black British woman living in 1970s London, as she struggles with her own identity and her place within the city. Aside from giving us a cultural insight into the socio-political climate of London under the Tory government of Margaret Thatcher, it also reveals much about the local people within these districts. It’s definitely a very different perspective from Roger Michell’s Notting Hill (1999). Make sure to keep a look out for the Notting Hill Carnival within the film. The annual festival held in August is a cornerstone of London’s black culture since its inception in 1959.
5. Closer (2004), by Mike Nichols
Over the years, the English capital has rivalled Paris and New York to become the go-to backdrop for tales of romance – the plethora of Hugh Grant rom-coms are just a start. Chronicling the relationship between two different couples, this intensely emotional film is no rom-com, but it softens the blow with its romantic vision of London. Follow in the footsteps of Jude Law, Julia Roberts, Clive Owen and Natalie Portman as they take in various emotive spots around London, from Postman’s Park at the start of the movie to Waterloo Bridge and the Embankment.