British films are often popular throughout the world, and this decade was no exception; there were many great British films over the past decade, with Skyfall taking the title as the highest grossing British film of all-time, and other films like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Lobster, The Favourite, The King’s Speech, Philomena, Under the Skin, and the Paddington films among others earning critical praise, hailing them as instant classics.
As with any genre or subsection of the medium, there are many films that simply didn’t get the audience they deserved. “Underrated” can mean a multitude of different things; some of these films were box office disappointments, others failed to permeate the public consciousness in a meaningful way, some were snubbed of awards recognition, and others proved to be too controversial or daring for general audiences. Either way, these are films that deserve to be mentioned more frequently.
These ten films are quite diverse in their tone, atmosphere, and messages, but they all speak to a unique British cultural identity that has been developed cinematically. It was an exciting decade for cinema in the United Kingdom, and these films showed a great variety to what a great British film could be. Here are the top ten most underrated British movies of the 2010s.
10. Nowhere Boy (2010)
Nowhere Boy debuted at some festivals and in a limited theatrical run in late 2009, but it wasn’t widely available to most viewers until 2010, so for the purposes of this list, it’s counted as one of the films of the decade. Many films have attempted to tell at least part of the story of The Beatles, but Nowhere Boy has a unique approach, showing the development of a young John Lennon (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) as he comes of age and is split apart by warring parental figures. This is more than just an origin story for Lennon, but an entertaining coming of age romp that depicts the development of an artist.
Outside of an opening music cue that is reminiscent of A Hard Day’s Night, there are very few obvious nods to The Beatles; the film focuses on Lennon’s first band the Quarrymen, and how the rock music of Elvis Presley inspired his rise to superstardom. Taylor-Johnson isn’t doing just another imitation, and is able to bring sensitivity and humility to Lennon as he comes into his own. Sam Taylor-Wood’s debut film is a fitting tribute to one of the greatest British artists of all-time.
9. The Ghost Writer (2010)
Often the scariest films are the ones with one foot leveled in reality, and while it’s impossible to deny the heightened suspense elements of The Ghost Writer, its story of government cover ups and allusions to international conspiracies feel scarily pertinent. It’s a compulsively watchable thriller, complete with slick camerawork, sharp dialogue, and entertaining plot twists, but the film is able to draw a dark mirror to today’s climate through the excellent screenplay by Robert Harris, which leaves the viewer hooked until its jaw dropping final shot.
Ewan McGregor is the titular unnamed ghost writer, who learns there’s more to British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) than he first expected when he begins researching his biography. The web of conspiracies are taught and intriguing, and McGregor is perfectly cast as a struggling everyman who becomes an obsessive. Brosnan also does some of the best work of his career; he’s equally charismatic and secretive, and the nuances he adds to the character’s wrestling with his own influence make the themes even more complex.
8. Mr. Holmes (2015)
Since Sherlock Holmes is a public domain character, there are literally hundreds of different adaptations of the character, with this decade alone seeing the success of both Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC’s Sherlock and Robert Downey Jr. in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films. Mr. Holmes, however, has a different take on the character, as it depicts an aging version of the famous sleuth (played by the incomparable Ian McKellen) as he recounts past adventures. Not directly inspired on any of the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, Mr. Holmes is actually based on the 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin.
In this film, Holmes has lost all of his signature elements; he’s no longer the most capable and clever person in the room, and instead of leaping at the opportunity to solve a case, he’s riddled with doubt and regret. McKellen draws out the pensive quality of the character, but he also has enough mischievous curiosity to him that gives the film a good nature. While there’s a fun mystery at the center that bounces between timelines, the heart of the film is seeing Holmes come to grips with his career as he loses his memory.
7. A Monster Calls (2016)
Fairy tales are often used as a means to help children cope with adult themes and gain inspiration, and A Monster Calls is a perfect embodiment of that spirit. It’s a charmingly earnest, emotional story of a young boy (Lewis MacDougall) who copes with the terminal illness of his mother (Felicity Jones) by communicating with an imaginary monster, voiced by Liam Neeson. It’s a tribute to the power of stories to overcome hardship, and blends creative fantastical visuals with raw emotional conflict.
MacDougall gives a tremendous child performance, and one that is restrained considering the tragic circumstances that his character endures. Neeson also gives a wonderful vocal performance; he carries the weight of the emotion, the mystery of the character, and the tenderness of the relationship on his shoulders. Even if the film hits many of the familiar beats of fantastical tearjerkers, director J.A. Bayona does so effectively and with a unique visual flare.
6. T2: Trainspotting (2017)
The original Trainspotting was a culturally defining moment, a film that provoked strong reactions due to its shocking content, surrealist visuals, and deeply unsettling story; not only did it inspire countless imitators and create many iconic lines (particularly the iconic “Choose Life” speech), but it may very well be the greatest Scottish film of all-time. There were rumors for years about a potential sequel based on the follow up to the original novel, and in 2017 Danny Boyle reunited Renton (Ewan McGregor), Spud (Ewen Bremmer), Begbie (Robert Carlyle), and Sick Boy (Johnny Lee Miller) as they crossed paths with each other again after the ending of the first film.
What makes T2: Trainspotting brilliant is that it isn’t what you’d expect; the film looks back at the events of the first film as foolhardy escapades made by foolish young men, and instead of using nostalgic imagery and lines as a crutch, it recontextualizes them. Renton’s “Choose Life” speech now feels like the musings of a bitter middle aged man, and his latest dance to “Lust for Life” is now a solemn moment of self-contemplation. Boyle once again adds a brittle sense of humor (including one hilarious moment when Renton and Sick Boy pull off a surprising musical number), and the rewriting of history that establishes Spud as the narrator and protagonist is surprisingly potent and emotional.