Monday July 23, 2012
Starring the City
By MUMTAJ BEGUM
London sets the scene to tackle a number of interesting themes.
ONE of the most powerful opening sequences in a film belongs to 28 Days Later with Cillian Murphy’s character walking through the empty streets of London, surrounded only by remnants of chaos.
With that chilling image, director Danny Boyle was able to immediately set the mood for an apocalyptic movie. After all, we know that there is just no way busy places like Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Street are ever desolate at any time of the day.
But Boyle wasn’t the first one to make London the centre of horror.
In 1981, director John Landis recruited two American friends to be our guides around London when one of them is turned into a werewolf and the other is a ghost only his friend can see. With American Werewolf In London, we got to visit all the tourist spots like London Zoo, Tower Bridge, Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square. Thankfully, the werewolf went to Paris after that.
Meanwhile, director Edgar Wright took a different route, and filmed outside the City in East Finchley, North Finchley and Highgate. Wright, with help from his collaborators Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, decided to keep things more local with the zombie outbreak in Shaun Of The Dead. Sure, we do not recognise the places featured in this 2004 film, but we are more than familiar with the protagonist’s problem of facing another humdrum day. Ugh!
London is also the perfect setting when it comes to talking about gangsters. The nuances needed to tackle this tough world are pronounced quite gorgeously with the right accent, violence, likeable anti-heroes and, of course, the locations. Films like Layer Cake and The Long Good Friday are two fine examples, with Daniel Craig and Bob Hoskins in the central role respectively.
In Layer Cake, Craig’s unnamed character tells the audience in a voice-over that he is not a gangster but a businessman. But the fact that he is attending a meeting – at a really posh restaurant – for “one last job” can only mean he is going to get himself in so much trouble that the light at the end of the tunnel is not going to be possible. While we may not agree with the character’s skewed moral compass, we have to admit he is no different than us in wanting to do his job the best he can.
A director who simply excels at presenting this subject on film is Guy Ritchie who has made three entertaining films in this genre – Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch and RocknRolla. Ritchie’s films are usually injected with a heavy dose of humour and have some really cool locations.
A more significant film revolving around an antagonist as a hero has to be David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, starring Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts. It centres on a Russian mob family that has immigrated to London and created all sorts of criminal activities in this city. But the crimes itself are secondary as the audiences get more and more invested in Mortensen’s character.
Juxtaposing this dark theme are light-hearted films set in London, and most of them starring Hugh Grant. This actor truly belongs in London – Did You Hear About The Morgans? which is set in New York and then a yeehaw town was a complete disaster. All we’re saying is, Grant’s bumbling act with just a dash of the “English embarrassment” works best when he’s in England. He couldn’t have been more clumsy or charming than in Four Weddings And A Funeral, the movie that propelled him into worldwide scope.
His character’s quirks work as well when his character falls in love with a Hollywood actress who looks like Julia Roberts in Notting Hill. Wonder how many women took the tube in London to Notting Hill to visit the bookshops there just in case a Hugh Grant-like guy was there?
Even when he’s playing a cad (like in Bridget Jones’s Diary and About A Boy), we can’t hate him because of his laughing blue eyes, which have set a whole new standard for his fellow Englishmen. In Love Actually, Grant plays the fella who lives at 10 Downing Street. And yes, we totally believed he was Prime Minister, and could dance so smoothly.
Then there’s a director like Woody Allen who has written so many love letters to his beloved New York through films. Hence it was a totally unexpected move when he shifted his attention to London with Match Point in 2005. His reasoning for the change of venue, according to an interview with The Observer back in 2005, was because it’s hard to make good films in the US as studios and some directors are more intent in wanting to make special-effects movies. He said: “That’s why I’m happy to work in London, because I’m right back in the same kind of liberal creative attitude that I’m used to.”
It must still apply because he made three other films in London – Scoop, Cassandra’s Dream and You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger. When his films are not set in London, he makes them in a European country (usually the title names the location).
No doubt, London has a personality of its own, what with its architecture, gloomy skies and interesting people. For obvious reasons, period pieces must be made in Europe with at least one setting in London, or the city is mentioned. Harry Potter, erm, wouldn’t work without a stop at London’s King’s Cross railway station. Any film involving the British royalty – The King’s Speech, The Queen and Elizabeth – erm, of course, has to have London scenes.
While Hollywood does have more control over the number of films that are churned out every year, there’s no doubt London lends a film an air of internationality.