The 15 Best British Films of The 1980s

best 1980s british films

Increased cuts to sources of funding meant that by the 1980’s the British Film industry was struggling. Britain itself was undergoing social and economical change as structures and certainties of the past were fading, bringing prosperity for some and hardship for others – something many saw as being driven by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government.

When viewed in retrospect the films of this era present a mixed bag but common themes such as social/societal change and escapism echo through. Here are 15 British films of the 1980’s worthy of further investigation:


15. Bad Timing (1980)

Bad Timing (1980)

Nicholas Roeg’s psychological thriller starring Art Garfunkle and Theresa Russell was dubbed a ‘sick film for sick people made by sick people’ upon initial release. Set in Vienna, it begins with Milena (Russell) being rushed to hospital following an apparent overdose, the narrative then fragments into flashbacks exploring her relationship with psychiatrist Alex Linden (Garfunkle).

Made in Roeg’s familiar non-linear visual style, the film has also been referred to as the director’s masterpiece. Not as fantastical as Roeg’s arguably better-know works such as Don’t Look Now, Walkabout or The Man Who Fell to Earth, the film takes a greyer look at the psychology of intimate relationships.

It isn’t comfortable viewing, the cutting between Milena’s orgasm and her having a tracheotomy attract frequent comment. Harvey Keitel helps bind proceedings together as the officer investigating the incident. Given an X cert in the U.S, the film was not available on home release in the country until 2005. However, those searching for spectacle should look elsewhere; this film has a strong focus on the psychological and there lays its power.


14. A Room with a View (1985)

A Room with a View (1985)

The, typically, Edwardian based period drama’s produced by Merchant Ivory (Ismail Merchant and James Ivory) were the main international bread-winners of the British Film Industry throughout the 1980’s and into the 90’s, and were the productions upon which the term ‘heritage film’ was coined.

Their polished productions frequently explored desire amid social repressions and expectations, this adaptation of the E. M Forster novel remains no exception. Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter) falls for free-spirited George Emerson (Julian Sands), the narrative charts her struggle with her feelings for him.

There is a hint of social shift – staunch Victorian values and social order giving way into a more modern Edwardian world. Merchant Ivory productions such as this set an influential benchmark for heritage productions to this day, TV’s Downton Abbey owes much to the credibility of films such as Room with a View.


13. Educating Rita (1983)

Educating Rita (1983)

Susan ‘Rita’ White (Julie Walters) is a working class woman who enters higher education via the Open University (O.U) where she encounters her personal tutor, the jaded alcoholic professor, Frank Bryant (Michael Cain).

Directed by Lewis Gilbert with a script by Willy Russell, adapted from his own stage play of the same name, the story remains a favourite for many although the expansion of a very character based drama into a film format has attracted mixed reviews in the past. The film retains its spark owing to the performances of Walters (in her first feature film role) and Cain. Rita and her perceptions alter throughout the film.

The open access policy of the O.U (meaning no previous qualifications were required for entry) had opened up a world of possibility many had not previously considered. The film still has repercussions today, shedding light on various issues and individual preconceptions relating to shifting British class divisions for much of its audience. Educating Rita marked Gilbert’s first film since 1979’s Moonraker (his third Bond) received negative reviews, he followed E.R with Shirley Valentine in 1989.


12. The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover (1989)

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (Directed by Peter Greenaway, 1989)

Peter Greenaway’s writer/director black comedy drama sees gangster/thief and restaurant owner Albert Spica’s (Michael Gambon) wife (Helen Mirren) embark on an affair with lover Michael (Alan Howard). The kitchen staff, including cook (Richard Borhinger); assist the wife in keeping the affair secret, but eventually the thief finds out.

With its mix of violence and nude/sex scenes the film attracted notoriety upon release which perhaps detracts from what is an accomplished theatrical looking film. Featuring an interesting use of colour and with costumes designed by Jean Paul Gautier, the film has a striking visual presence and intensity.


11. The Company of Wolves (1984)

The Company of Wolves

Neil Jordan’s second film as a director was co-written by him in conjunction with Angela Carter upon whose short story the film is based.

Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) dreams of life in a fairy tale forest troubled by wolves. One day, wearing a red hood, Rosaleen sets out to her grandmother’s house, her grandmother (Angela Lansbury) having issued her with a warning to beware men whose eyebrows meet.

The film is interspersed with several small stories throughout, the studio based sets (winning the film one of its four BAFTAs for production design) allow for an atmospheric, almost claustrophobic sense of a forest straight from a Grimm fairytale, making viewing an intense and nightmarish experience.

Likewise, the smaller story segments create a disorientating dream within a dream. Observations regarding little red riding hood and burgeoning sexuality are plentiful and easy to make. Sarah Patterson was still too young to watch the film (U.K certificate 18) for several years after its release.


10. A Fish Called Wanda (1988)


Hugely popular comedy written by John Cleese and director Charles Crichton (better known for his work with Ealing Studios) which sees criminal George Thomason (Tom Georgeson) arrested in the aftermath of a successful jewel heist, only for his barrister Archie Leach (John Cleese) to become involved in the double dealings of the remaining gang of crooks (Michael Palin, Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline).

The film’s positive reception (particularly in the U.S) was a contrast to Cleese’s previous comedy outing Clockwise. Crichton and Cleese won an Academy Award for the script, with Cleese going onto receive a BAFTA for best actor in leading role.

Whilst Kline’s performance and Cleese prancing around in his underpants remain well-remembered, it is Palin as stuttering animal lover Ken who (despite killing three Yorkshire terriers) steals the show even with his head bandaged and chips forced up his nose – something a doctor apparently advised the actor not to repeat. Fierce Creatures in 1997 saw the cast reunited and was much anticipated but did not enjoy the same applause.


9. Chariots of Fire (1981)

Chariots of Fire (1981)

Directed by Hugh Hudson from a script by Colin Welland, this successful historical drama based on real life athletes Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) begins in 1919 and charts them trough to the 1924 Paris Olympics where Liddell refuses to run on a Sunday owing to his religious beliefs (as echoed in the film’s title – taken from Bible and used in William Blake’s hymn Jerusalem).

A film with a stirring soundtrack, now perhaps more recognised through repeated parody that the film itself, the use of modern (80’s) synthesiser music was at the time unusual in a historical production. The beach running scene and the courtyard ‘race’ early in the film have since passed into screen legend.