London Calling! 5 Films Exploring England’s Great City

From Victoria & Abdul to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, England’s capital provides a world of fog and fascination. 

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,” Samuel Johnson observed. No doubt that is why there are so many great films set in that celebrated city. London is the center of the British Empire in Stephen FrearsVictoria & Abdul, a moving tale that follows the extraordinary real-life friendship between Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and a young Indian clerk, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), who rose through the royal court to become her confidant and spiritual teacher. To recreate the opulence of the late Victorian world, the film meticulously recreates one of the Queen's magnificent banquets with London’s Old Royal Naval College standing in for Windsor Castle.

As we celebrate our 15th Anniversary, we are jumping the pond to salute some remarkable films that not only take place in London, but capture the spirit and legacy of that city as well. From history being made in Suffragette’s public squares to the shadowy streets of intrigue in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Closed Circuit, these Focus favorites offer first-class travel to one of the world’s greatest metropolises. 

See the official trailer for Victoria & Abdul.

Suffragette captures a city in protest.

London is up in arms in Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette. In 1912, working women like Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) take to the streets to strike for their right to vote. In a scene shot in London’s historic Myddelton Square, Meryl Streep (as the real-life Emmeline Pankhurst) delivers a powerful call to arms, a speech that emboldens Watts to fight on. The result is a dramatization that, according to The New York Times, is “stirring and clear-eyed––the best kind of history lesson.”

Get Suffragette now on iTunes or at Amazon

See history unfold in Suffragette’s “Then and Now” featurette.

Eastern Promises uncovers a dangerous London.

In David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, Viggo Mortensen, an undercover agent embedded deep in London’s secretive Russian mafia, finds salvation helping Naomi Watts, a midwife with the audacity to stand up to organized crime. The film lays bare a rarely seen part of the city. After reading Steven Knight’s screenplay, Cronenberg remembers being “immediately sucked into this intense little world of the criminal subculture in London." To translate that to the screen, the director worked with cinematographer Peter Suschitzky to shoot “the dark, rain-slicked London streets in tones that turn the city into a sinister, palpitating presence,” explains The New York Times.

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Eastern Promises cuts a path through London’s gritty underside. 

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy maps out Cold War intrigue. 

In bringing to the screen John le Carré's masterpiece Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Tomas Alfredson worked with his star Gary Oldman to recreate George Smiley, the fascinating master spy described in the novel as “small, podgy and at best middle-aged, he was by appearance one of London's meek who do not inherit the earth.” Set in a seventies London of rainy skies and grey streets, the film visually realizes not only the cunning of Smiley’s drab appearance, but also the oppressive climate in which Cold War spies lived. Naming it as “one of the year's best films,” Rolling Stone describes how “the film emerges as a tale of loneliness and desperation among men who can never disclose their secret hearts, even to themselves.”

Get Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy now on iTunes or at Amazon

Go inside the world of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in this special featurette.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day in London’s swinging Soho scene.  

Bharat Nalluri’s comedy of opposites, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, pairs Frances McDormand as a hungry, unemployed governess with Amy Adams, a giddy gal about town. For USA Today, “Adams and McDormand's performances and winning chemistry are the heart and soul of this screwball comedy set in London in 1939.” While the dark shadow of a great war hovers just at the film’s edges, its characters inhabit a London filled with adventure, romance, and the latest fashions from Paris. 

Get Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day now on iTunes or at Amazon

Follow Frances McDormand and Amy Adams though London in the trailer for Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.

Everyone is being watched in Closed Circuit

In Closed Circuit, Eastern Promises’ screenwriter Steven Knight captures the very modern mix of terrorist threats and police surveillance that defines today’s London. Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall are lawyers who find themselves arguing a case in which the state is permitted to videotape everyone, but its court proceedings are conducted in absolute secrecy. Director John Crowley's plan to create “a recognizable London with a slight edge of paranoia” set the perfect tone for his thriller. “With its hushed suspicions, breathless rushing and gleaming surfaces — from certain lofty angles, the London in this movie looks like a science-fiction reimagining of a medieval fortress town,” writes The New York Times

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London sees your every move in Closed Circuit.

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