One of the world’s favorite destinations, London drew 18.8 international visitors in 2015, putting it ahead of Paris and New York as a go-to destination for travelers. And to be quite honest, we completely understand why – there are few places that combine cockney and class quite like London does. While it’s certainly not popular because of its weather (dreary grey skies are a staple of the British capital), you’re not likely to be easily bored by London.
Nor have film directors shied away from capturing the city’s seductive allure, and most world-class directors have shot at least one film in the “smog capital” of the world. From black comedies and grungy gangster thrillers to period dramas, romantic comedies and animated classics, these films explore psychosis, dystopia, immigrant struggles, and love – all against the backdrop of London.
- Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
This British heist comedy with Jason Statham and Vinnie Jones was Guy Ritchie’s first big break into international cinema. Hilarious and gritty, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is set largely in London’s East End, and follows the blunders of two friends as they rob a small gang to pay off their debts. Although Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels does not feature signature London locations, being shot almost entirely in pubs, clubs and narrow side streets, its depiction of London’s cockney criminal underworld and its distinctly British black humor make for a comic journey into the city’s seedy underbelly.
2. Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)
A modern-day Pride and Prejudice, the ever-hilarious Bridge Jones’s Diary (based on a book of the same name by Helen Fielding) was shot in and around London. British to the core – complete with cameos by Salman Rushdie and Jeffrey Archer – Bridget Jones’s includes London landmarks like the Shad Thames, the iconic Tower Bridge, as well as scenes at the railway stations and at sprawling British estates. Directed by Sharon Maguire, Bridget Jones’s Diary’s stars Renée Zellweger alongside British romcom favorites Hugh Grant and Colin Firth (ironically, Firth played Austen’s Mr. Darcy in the 1995 TV mini-series Pride and Prejudice). A sequel, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason was released in 2004, and the third film in the franchise – Bridget Jones’s Baby – will be released later this year.
3. Closer (2004)
Intimate and sultry, Closer is just the opposite of a romantic comedy – though it has its fair share of romance. As two couples navigate the tricky world of adult relationships, they must grapple with the realities of love, life and attraction. Based on a play of the same name by Patrick Marber, Closer is an intense journey into the lives of four characters in a London that provides the backdrop for both love and betrayal. Directed by Mike Nichols, the film’s star-studded cast includes Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Nathalie Portman and Clive Owen, and its decidedly British setting includes locations like The Aquarium, the Thames, the theater, Heathrow, as well as London’s infamous strip clubs.
4. Bend it Like Beckham (2002)
Shot in London’s Hounslow, Bend it Like Beckham captures the teenage drama of an Indian Sikh girl who, much to the dismay of her family, just wants to play soccer. Between dealing with the difficulties of fitting in as a first generation immigrant, dodging her parent’s attempts to marry her off (and her mother’s attempts to teach her to cook Dahl) and trying to belong, Jess Bhamra (played by Parminder Nagra) must balance love, friendship, identity and her passion for England’s most popular sport. Director Gurnder Chadha showcases London’s ethnic diversity in this hilarious comedy about immigration and fitting in – and of course, learning to be British.
5. V for Vendetta (2005)
There are few scenes in cinema history that are as memorable as the explosion of London’s iconic Palace of Westminster and Big Ben that concludes James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta. Set in a fascist and dystopian London, this adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel quickly became a classic – not the least for its chilling tale of the fight for freedom and identity in a bland, Orwellian world, and, of course, for the masked man’s v-riddled monologue. Adapted for the screen by the Wachowski siblings and starring Nathalie Portman and Hugo Weaving, V for Vendetta popularized the Guy Fawkes mask, which was later used in protests around the world.
6. Layer Cake (2004)
Before Daniel Craig became the seventh actor to play MI6 agent James Bond, he was an anonymous cocaine dealer looking to leave criminal life behind in the British crime thriller Layer Cake (also L4YER CAKE). Directed by Matthew Vaughn and adapted from a novel of the same name by J. J. Connolly, Layer Cake is every bit as British as it is grungy and cold. The title the film, which refers to social strata in Britain’s criminal underworld, reflects the lead character’s position as a mid-level cocaine dealer in Europe’s cocaine capital (in 2014, London was found to have more traces of cocaine in its sewage system of any city ever tested). With scenes shot around the city and an extensive sequence shot against Canary Wharf’s skyline, Layer Cake is not for the faint of heart – although it is a favorite among Craig fans.
7. Dirty, Pretty Things (2002)
Another film about London’s underbelly – albeit a very different one – Dirty Pretty Things is a journey of self-discovery for two immigrants in London. When Senay, a Turkish asylum seeker (played by Audrey Tautou) meets Okwe (played by Chiwetel Ejoifor), an illegal Nigerian immigrant who works as a cab driver by day and the front desk of a hotel by night, they quickly become friends in need, as both are seeking refuge from an otherwise hostile city. As the two immigrants become disillusioned with life as fugitives, their lives become intertwined as they attempt to navigate life in a London keen to expel them.
8. Paddington (2014)
Is there anything more British than London’s most famous (not to mention well-mannered) bear? Named after one of London’s biggest railway stations, Paddington Bear was first conceived of in the illustrated book series written by Michael Bond and illustrated by Peggy Fortnum in 1958. Originally from Peru, he is adopted by a human family (the Browns) and named Paddington, only to set out on a series of adventures in pursuit of a British explorer who promised his aunt and uncle a place should they ever go to London. Michael Bond’s British-French live-action film directed by Paul King released in 2014 and starring Ben Whishaw follows Paddington as he primly (albeit clumsily) maneuvers his way around London, and includes scenes at Tower Bridge, Marylebone Station, Maida Vale Station, Portobello Road, the Natural History Museum, the Shard and the London Eye.
9. Children of Men (2006)
Alfonso Cuarón’s dystopian thriller about a not-so-distant future when humanity is threatened with extinction due to infertility and when Europe is threatened with collapse due to the influx of illegal refugees is as gripping today as it was 10 years ago when it was first released. Set against a Britain in which humanity has been plagued with 18 years of infertility, Theo (played by Clive Owen), is entrusted with Kee – the world’s only pregnant woman (played by Clare-Hope Ashitey), and must navigate the authoritarianism of a Britain that lives in morbid fear of refugees to deliver her to safety. Although its subject matter may not be quintessentially London, Children of Men is, with scenes set in iconic locations like Fleet Street, Trafalgar Square and Battersea Power Station (which is transformed into an art archive), and montages at Admiralty Arch, as well as references to Pink Floyd, Banksy and Orwell.
10. Love Actually (2003)
Directed by writer/ director Richard Curtis (writer of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones’s Diary and Notting Hill and creator of Mr. Bean), Love Actually is the ultimate British romantic comedy. With eight different storylines about characters discovering love (and in some cases, infidelity), Love Actually features an ensemble cast of British actors, including romcom favorite Hugh Grant, Keira Knightley, Martine McCutcheon, Alan Rickman, Liam Neeson, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Colin Firth, Bil Nighy, Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, and Andrew Lincoln. Filmed on location in London, Love Actually includes scenes at Heathrow, the London School of Languages, 10 Downing Street, Notting Hill, and Selfridges & Co.
11. Sliding Doors (1998)
90s classic Sliding Doors is an exploration of possibilities: what if, in a parallel universe, you missed your train home and that set off a chain of events in which you did (or did not) see something that you were supposed to. In Sliding Doors, it is that chain of events that forces Helen (played by Gwenyth Paltrow) to be honest with herself, and ultimately, to discover true love. With scenes on the London tube (for it is the underground train’s sliding doors that transport her from one universe to another), Leinster Square, Trinity Buoy Wharf, Hammersmith Bridge, and Albert Bridge, this comedy drama by director Peter Howitt with John Hannah navigates London freely (and without being too British about it). What’s also nice is that it is the infrastructure of 90s London in particular that makes Sliding Doors work – complete with elevators, undergrounds and escalators – all of which are pivotal to Helen’s transition from one world to the next.
12. Sweeney Todd (2007)
An adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 musical play of the same name, Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd (also Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street) is a melodramatic Victorian musical about an English barber and serial killer and his accomplice, Mrs. Lovett. The film, which is darker and gorier than the original musical play, depicts a dark and sinister London – although much of the film was not shot on location. With Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Alan Rickman, Sweeney Todd captures on film one of Britain’s most celebrated musicals.
13. Match Point (2005)
Woody Allen’s 2005 drama about a man who marries into a wealthy British family is both typically Allen and typically British in its exploration of the ways in which class affects individuals’ choices. Although it was adapted from an American to a British setting, Match Point manages to stay authentically British, not the least of which because of its stellar cast, which includes Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Scarlett Johansson, Emily Mortimer, Matthew Goode, Brian Cox, and Penelope Wilton. Match Point includes prominent landmarks like London’s Tate Modern and Blackfriars Bridge, the Royal Opera House, the Palace of Westminster, Cambridge Circus, and Lloyd’s building.
14. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)
No list of films about London would be complete without a film about wizarding, and while the entire Harry Potter series takes place in London (Platform 9 ¾ was shot at King’s Cross Station in all of the films), Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix features London most prominently. Directed by David Yates, The Order of the Phoenix draws a darker world than the earlier films, and includes Harry battling with dementors and doing magic on muggle territory in locations like London’s red phone booths as well as at Westminster and along The Thames.
15. A Clockwork Orange
Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 dystopian crime masterpiece A Clockwork Orange is a dive into a futuristic and dark London underworld that is both psychotic and disturbing. The all-time cockney classic, which was adapted from a novel by the same name by Anthony Burgess, caused controversy for its treatment of rape sprees and gang violence, and was later withdrawn from viewing in Britain for some time. With themes like juvenile delinquency and psychosis to control of youth and dubious psychiatric treatment, A Clockwork Orange was shot in and around London and has been referenced by numerous filmmakers, including Quentin Tarantino, Danny Boyle, the Coen Brothers, and Alfonso Cuarón, among others.