20 Masterpieces of British Cinema You Should Not Miss

7. Black Narcissus (1947)

Black Narcissus

This psychological drama revolving around religion and temptation is based on the novel of the same name by female British author Rumer Godden. At the centre of the story is a convent of nuns cut off from society in the valleys of the Himalayas, as they are tempted by the forbidden.

This film is a technical masterpiece with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger steering it to success. Critically acclaimed for its groundbreaking visuals, cinematographer Jack Cardiff, whose palette and lighting were influenced by 17th century Dutch painter Vermeer, earned several accolades and awards, filming in a technicolour standard advanced from a number of other pictures released at the same time.

Starring Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron as members of the convent, the nuns face many psychological conflicting issues including the thought of isolation, forbidden desires, and crisis of identity. The hypnotic atmosphere and Himalayan setting are mesmerizing to watch, a pioneer in British cinema that is still awe-inducing visually and an inspirational to modern day filmmakers.


6. Brief Encounter (1945)

Brief Encounter film

“Brief Encounter” is a romantic drama set in 1930s suburban Britain, centering on Laura, a bored but content housewife with children, who meets a doctor, Alec, who is in a similar position in life. What starts out as friendship, meeting at the same location every week, progressively grows into a love affair.

 Its fluid and natural feel during conversations are presented in a realistic and delicate manner by both actors, Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, both of whom click immediately with great chemistry, making their relationship believable from start to finish.

The film manages to use just 86 minutes running time to achieve the highs, the lows, all of the happiness and the sadness that love can offer. The script is based on a short play by producer Noel Coward, often considered as one of the single greatest British playwrights of all time, and it is a master of observation and dialogue. Here, teamed up with director David Lean, he creates a bittersweet masterpiece of two lovers doomed from the start.


5. The Wicker Man (1973)


Starring the late great Christopher Lee as a cult leader, Lord Summerisle, set on a remote Island of the same name, “The Wicker Man” is considered one of the greatest horror films of all time, providing a script that twists and turns at every corner and a bleak ending that is one of the most memorable and haunting scenes of all time, especially within the horror genre.

Based around Celtic paganism and the idea of human sacrifice what starts off as a mystery surrounding a missing girl, we follow Edward Woodward as Sargent Howie to the island looking to solve the case, as it builds suspense and creates further questions, concluding with the antagonist that the audience spend the whole film following discovering the horrifying truth of Summerisle.

Praised for its tension building and unsettling atmosphere thanks to its incredible score, “The Wicker Man” was released during a time when horror movies were all fresh and exciting, with innovation from both sides of the Atlantic, including “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, “The Exorcist” and “Night of the Living Dead”, all pioneers in the genre creating masterpieces that are still targets to match today.


4. A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Director Stanley Kubrick, stepping away from his usual style of film making, managed to create a motion picture like no other. “A Clockwork Orange”, based on the novel of the same name by Anthony Burgess, is both deranged and chillingly terrifying, telling the tale of Alex, played by Malcolm McDowell, the leader of a gang that shows no remorse in their actions, bounding from one act of violence to another, like a drug, stopping at nothing to feed their criminal addiction.

Despite popular belief, the film was never banned in the United Kingdom, being pulled from screenings by Stanley Kubrick himself due to his family receiving death threats because of the film’s subject matter and content.

The film was only re-released years later after Kubrick’s death. Depicting several scenes of graphic in-depth violence and sexual assault, it makes for difficult viewing throughout. Despite several harrowing acts of violence, the film is both sophisticated and full of wit displayed elegantly with the assistance of Alex’s favorite classical music.

A masterpiece on several levels helmed by one of the single greatest directors of all time, which is filmed beautifully, complete with a smart script, “A Clockwork Orange” fashions its own universe full of depth and unique entities that, once witnessed, are unforgettable.


3. The Red Shoes (1948)


One of the first films to treat ballet seriously, “The Red Shoes” uses a story within a story as a structural device, based around a ballet school, undertaking a performance of the fairy tale “The Red Shoes”. It is highly regarded as an innovator in cinematography due to the utilization of technicolour filming, a visually stunning film with a musical score to suit.

Fronted by Moira Shearer at the heart of the drama, she plays Victoria, torn between her career and the man she loves. The story is simple, its main focus throughout is on the art direction, the visuals and the musical score, making it one of the most visually striking films, beautifully shot and frequently used as an influential reference to films of a similar nature.

Written, directed and produced by the British production partnership of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who together were known as The Archers through the 1940s and 1950s, were forces to be reckoned with in British cinema, working together on 24 productions, this being one of their greatest achievements.


2. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

“Lawrence of Arabia”, based on Thomas Edward Lawrence’s time in the Arabian Peninsula during World War I, was about a British archaeologist, military officer, and diplomat. Peter O’ Toole, after the role was initially turned down by Marlon Brando and Albert Finney due to the uncertainty of it becoming a success, was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actor and gave an unforgettable performance as the title character. 

It is widely considered one of the greatest and most influential films in the history of cinema, dominating the 35th Academy Awards winning seven Oscars from 10 nominated categories.

Lawrence’s struggle with his loyalty between his native Britain and his new found allegiance with the Arabian Desert tribes is the front and centre of the story, but it also delves into his morale opinions and abhorrence of the violence of war and the crisis of his own identity.

It has been hailed by several directors as a huge influence on their own works, including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Ridley Scott and Martin Scorsese. The film, divided into two parts with an intermission, was never expected to be the global success it turned out to be, and was praised for its high calibre of acting throughout the entire cast, the cinematography and epic score. “Lawrence of Arabia” turned out to be one of the single greatest masterpieces of all time.


1. The Third Man (1949)

the third man cinematography

Often considered one of the greatest films of all time, “The Third Man” is set in post-World War II Europe, prior to the Cold War commencing. It bases around a pulp western novelist, Holly, played by Joseph Cotten, as he visits his friend in Vienna, Harry, played by Orson Welles, only to discover that he has recently died. Vienna is shot beautifully post-WWII, a hollow shell of its former self with its deserted streets and eerie shadows; this atmospheric cinematography was some of the finest of the black and white era, winning Robert Krasker an Oscar for his crisp picture and beautiful visuals.

Amongst the many areas of praise that “The Third Man” receives is the score, written and performed by Anton Karas, a Viennese composer discovered by Carol Reed upon arriving in Vienna. With no previous productions or past work in cinema, he went on to produce one of the bestselling and memorable theme tunes of the black and white era.

A dark thriller with a plot full of surprises was both a critical and financial success, claiming top prizes at the Cannes Film Festival and the Academy Awards. The film combined one of the finest ensembles of the 1940s, partnering Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles for one final time during the decade, having previously worked together on “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons”, both giving screen stealing performances and Welles penning some of the finest scripts of his era.

Alongside director Carol Reed, screenwriter Graham Greene and a superb supporting cast including Trevor Howard and Alida Valli, it was a film that was ahead of its time with a neo noir feel of the late 1960s. A flawless classic of British cinema, a suspense filled thriller with an enormous web of mystery that grabs you from the beginning and doesn’t let go until the end credits roll.

Author Bio: Dan Carmody, born and raised in Doncaster, England, an area with very little in the way of film connections (The Full Monty was filmed down the road). When not working full time as a Civil Engineer, his one true passion is cinema, relating back to the early 1990’s when his mum showed him a lot of horror films way before he should have been allowed. An avid follower of all genres, both classical and modern. Also enthusiastic about video games, making lists and cheese.