For two thousand years, London has been marked on the map. Settled by the Romans in AD 47, Londinium, as it was then known, was the capital of the country during Roman rule.
Fast-forward by two millennia, and modern London is a thriving metropolis that is considered one of the grandest and most important cities in the world.
It has seen and housed many great artistic endeavours during its long history – from the Renaissance-era painters to the great composers of the 18th century, London has always been a hub of the fine arts. In more recent years, the city has found itself to be the source of some of the biggest cinematic events of all time.
The legendary Pinewood film studios are based just outside of London and have housed the production of all the Star Wars movies, many of the Marvel films, and is the home of one Mr James Bond.
With the grand old city being made up of a pastiche of different styles from different ages, London offers the kind of backdrop that few other cities can match. From the council estates to the townhouses – the Camden’s to the Mayfair’s, they have all been a part of one production or another. So, here we present the ten best films ever to be set in the ancient Roman settlement.
10. Notting Hill (1999)
Notting Hill is a British cinema must-see. It is based, in part, on William Wyler’s classic 1950 romantic-comedy, Roman Holiday – which tells the tale of a European princess who runs away and falls in love with an American journalist in Rome.
Well, Richard Curtis took note of Dalton Trumbo’s original script and used it as an influence for his idea that a beautiful Hollywood movie star would fall in love with a bumbling British book-shop owner.
The roles are perfectly played by Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts, who does feel like a slightly ethereal presence at the beginning of the film as she invades the life of this unsuspecting average man. Though, as the film wonderfully flows forward the reality of her life and personality endears her to the audience on a personal level. No longer is she some far-off being in front of cameras, she is a rounded and fully tactile human being.
The feel of the film is very British too, with everything happening in some form of moderation and with a sense of being all over the place. London provides the perfect backdrop, as Hugh Grant’s character, William, doesn’t live in a grandiose Georgian townhouse, instead, he is seen to be living in a house and area that any real Londoner would recognise as ‘nice but not posh’.
The most affluent parts of the city such as Mayfair and The Ritz are on full display at times, which are made to feel more like her world than his – thus, giving the film the balance it needed to thrive.
9. Snatch (2000)
Guy Ritchie is a filmmaker that’s very name is synonymous with London. There are very few people who have ever been able to skewer the tropes of the East London gangster scene quite as he has.
With Snatch, his second feature film, he decided to go all out in the lunacy and hilarity of London’s gang culture. Casting Jason Statham as an illegal boxing promoter, Vinnie Jones as a violent gangster, and Brad Pitt as a gypsy boxing champion proved to be a genius move, as they spend the whole film chasing a stolen diamond.
The depiction of London’s more sordid underbelly and the people that inhabit it has a unique embrace to it. Sometimes, it feels like a homage to The Long Good Friday, and others, it feels like a classic British comedy in the way the narrative plays out.
In some ways, Guy Ritchie never bettered the work he did with Snatch and Lock, Stock, And Two-Smoking Barrels, though both have gone down as British classics.
8. Mary Poppins (1964)
When P.L. Travers wrote Mary Poppins in 1934, she never envisaged that it would become a huge worldwide phenomenon on the big screen some 30 years later. However, such was Walt Disney’s belief that it should be adapted for the big screen that he spent the better part of two decades trying to convince her to do it.
The story of the Banks family and the magical, musical woman who comes to save them; Mary Poppins has been an established classic film for generations now, one that saw Julie Andrews win an Oscar for Best Actress.
Though it was mostly filmed in soundstages, the idyllic image of London plays a huge role in the film. The huge ancient trees, the terraced townhouses, Dick Van Dyke’s bafflingly thick impression of an Australian man trying to do an English accent, all of it combined to give a whimsical sense of London just after the turn of the century.
While the film will always be best remembered for Andrew’s iconic performance and Van Dyke’s aforementioned accent, Mary Poppins is the summit of Disney-ness. It is everything that a Disney movie is supposed to be, charming, funny, heartfelt, and completely loveable.
7. Shaun Of The Dead (2004)
Nobody expected Shaun Of The Dead to become as iconic as it is. This is mostly attributed to the fact that its perception before its release was that it was a zombie movie coming from the guys from the TV series Spaced, how good could it be?
Well, it became an instant classic in the British film scene and a great many Hollywood figures adored it too. It ended up launching the film careers of Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright, and Nick Frost, who stepped out of the television and into the big-time.
The great strength that Shaun Of The Dead has is that everybody is so very British in it. Not in the posh Jane Austen tea-party way either, it represents a youth that was hidden away in the barely visible world of London’s less appealing neighbourhoods. Shaun is a dead-end worker who is terrible at being a boyfriend and worse at being a housemate, though due to the zombie outbreak he is forced to assume the role of the hero.
The cultural representation of the middle-aged, middle-class English populous is brilliant in the film, epitomised by the great Bill Nighy as Shaun’s stepdad. Everything in the film is either a call-back to other zombie movies or a satirical takedown of general life in the era, which is why enormous credit must be given to Wright and Pegg who wrote the screenplay.
6. The Ladykillers (1955)
There may not be a film on this list that represents traditional fuddy-duddy Britishness more than The Ladykillers. Alec Guinness leads the superb cast in a classic crime comedy about five thieves who rent out a room in an unsuspecting old lady’s house to rob £60,000 from King’s Cross station.
Whilst the film features acting legend Alec Guinness, it also marks the first major film role for Peter Sellers who would go on to great things in the resulting years. As the film goes deeper and deeper into the well thought out, though poorly executed plan to steal the money, the mishaps become greater and greater, until it eventually sees the whole criminal outfit undone by one busybody old lady. The image of 1950s London as a smoky post-war crowded leviathan gives the film a texture that you can almost breathe through the screen, though you wouldn’t want to for fear of the odour.
The direction by Alexander Mackendrick is very precise and gives the film a comedic tone visually. Whilst William Rose’s script is riddled with all kinds of laughs throughout, which saw him nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his work.
The film was adapted by the Coen brothers in 2004, this time set in America and with Tom Hanks playing the Alec Guinness role. Though it broadly failed to live up to the original, which has since become a beloved British comedy.