With its charismatic leads and colourful cinematography, rom-com Rye Lane unfolds on the streets of south London – taking us on a playful tour of Peckham chicken shops, karaoke bars and food markets. Director Raine Allen-Miller’s heart-stealing debut isn’t the first film to make London its backdrop: from Dalston tower blocks to Notting Hill bookshops, the city plays an integral role in British cinema. Here, we take a tour of the best films set in London, from cult classics to mainstream masterpieces.
Ginger & Rosa (2012)
It’s 1962 and London is on the brink of change. At the heart of Sally Potter’s coming-of-age drama is the intense, intimate and secretive friendship of its titular characters, Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert). It evocatively conjures teenage girlhood in postwar Britain: the adolescents sneak down London alleyways to kiss boys, sit in the bathtub to shrink their jeans, read magazine columns out loud to one another. Ginger and Rosa’s story is not only set against a backdrop of the Swinging Sixties’ liberation, but also its political unrest. Ginger, alarmed by the coverage of the Cuban Missile Crisis on the radio, begins attending Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marches as an activist – just as her friendship with Rosa fills with unspoken tension. Ginger & Rosa is a vivid portrait of teenage girlhood and sociopolitical change in 1960s London.
North London suburbs take centre stage in Disobedience, a poignant romantic drama that follows Ronit’s (Rachel Weisz) return to her Orthodox Jewish community after her father’s death. She arrives at her friend Dovid’s (Alessandro Nivola) house to pay her respects and discovers their childhood friend Esti (Rachel McAdams) is now his wife. The chemistry between Ronit and Esti is electric – Weisz and McAdams give utterly compelling performances – and they quickly fall into the illicit romance that began when they were teenagers. Shot with a muted, moody colour palette on north London’s quiet residential streets, Disobedience is a powerful, erotic meditation on queer desire, faith and the meaning of community.
Career Girls (1997)
Smoke-filled pubs. Small, dark flats. This is mid-Nineties London in director Mike Leigh’s comedy-drama Career Girls: a city where characters rent flats above Chinese takeaways, navigate housemate conflicts, drink in old pubs. At the beginning of the film, Annie (Lynda Steadman) is travelling to London to meet Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge), her old friend from university – who she has not seen in six years. The film follows them as they reminisce about their lives as students, their relationships and their old flatmates. Many parts of London make appearances in Career Girls – from King’s Cross Station to Primrose Hill – and form the backdrop to Hannah and Annie’s reunion.
Young Soul Rebels (1991)
Set to an spirited soundtrack of soul and punk in 1970s London, part-thriller, part-gay love story Young Soul Rebels is fizzing with energy. Chris (Valentine Nonyela) and Caz (Mo Sesay) run a radio station from a tower block in Dalston, east London – and the film follows the tensions in their friendship (and in their respective relationships) after their friend TJ (Shyro Chung) is murdered while cruising for sex in a local park. Young Soul Rebels takes you on a dizzying tour of Dalston barbers, council estates and soul clubs, painting a vivid picture of London’s youth subcultures – and the city’s racial and sexual tensions – in 1977.
Raucous, vibrant and irresistibly charismatic, Rocks brings Hackney to life. Director Sarah Gavron almost exclusively used first-time actors from the local area to tell the tale of Olushola (Bukky Bakray), nicknamed Rocks, who discovers her single mother has abandoned her and her brother Emmanuel (D'angelou Osei Kissiedu). It’s a story of both hardship and sisterhood: Rocks moves from place to place, trying to take care of Emmanuel – and relies on the support of her schoolfriends. Shot on location, the film moves through blocks of east-London flats, stretches of canals in the summer, stalls at Ridley Road market. Rocks is a charming and heartfelt depiction of Hackney’s communities.
Up The Junction (1968)
Filmed in 1960s London, Up The Junction is a British cinema classic. Based on Nell Dunn’s collection of short stories, the film follows Polly (Suzy Kendall) as she swaps middle-class Chelsea for working-class Battersea. In an effort to distance herself from her wealthy upbringing, she begins working at a sweet factory and befriends the other women there, as well as the wider working-class community. In its portrayal of class conflicts and social mobility in the 1960s, Battersea comes alive in Up The Junction – a sprawling mosaic of the borough’s junk shops, pubs and factories.
Notting Hill (1999)
In the opening scenes of Notting Hill, William (Hugh Grant) walks through the bustling Portobello Road market – passing stalls selling fruit and antiques – to reach his flat on Westbourne Park Road. One day, Will’s local travel bookshop is paid a visit by an unexpected guest – famous American actor Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) – and a complicated, stop-start romance develops. Full of Richard Curtis flourishes and finely tuned British comedy, Notting Hill is a classic London rom-com: romance happens against the beautiful backdrop of north London’s garden squares and independent bookshops.
Mary Poppins (1964)
No list of the best films set in London would be complete without Mary Poppins. Although the film was shot at Walt Disney Studios in California, its setting – created using stunning painted backdrops – is Edwardian-era London. In this classic, Mr Banks hires a nanny (Julie Andrews) for his two mischievous children, Jane and Michael, and adventure ensues. At the time of its release in 1964, it was Disney’s highest-grossing film. Expect a delightful blend of live action and animation, as well as magical rooftop views of London, smoke-filled cityscapes and (of course) many spoonfuls of sugar.
Rye Lane (2023)
Peckham and Brixton are at the heart of director Raine Allen-Miller’s first feature film. Rye Lane pens a love letter to south London as its two protagonists, Dom (David Jonsson) and Yas (Vivian Oparah) get to know each other over the course of a single day. Both reeling from breakups, the film follows them as they move through their local neighbourhood. The cinematography is a bright burst of colour, offering candy-coloured visions of Rye Lane Market, the cash and carry in Brixton Village and Peckham Soul record store. Rye Lane is a joyous celebration of friendship, love and spontaneity in south London.
The L-Shaped Room (1962)
A classic of the radical kitchen-sink-realism movement – which focused on the lives of the working class in the postwar period – The L-Shaped Room is based on Lynne Reid Banks’ novel of the same name. Pregnant Jane (Leslie Caron, who received a BAFTA and Academy Award for her performance) is 27 and moves into a cheap, run-down boarding house in Notting Hill. She befriends the other tenants in the building, all affectionately depicted outsiders – a trumpeter and an eccentric retired artist, among others. In its portrayal of this offbeat community, The L-Shaped Room paints a moving portrait of working-class London.
Sliding Doors (1998)
Sliding Doors is an ode to the magical possibilities of chance encounters in the city. It hinges on a compelling central idea. What if one moment – a random meeting on the Tube – could change the course of your life? The film unfolds as two separate and parallel musings on this question. In one scenario, Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow) meets James (John Hannah) on the Tube from Embankment Station – but in another, she doesn’t catch that train in time. Sliding Doors is a witty, heartwarming romantic comedy about the workings of fate and the beauty of serendipity in the city.
Grab your marmalade sandwiches and your duffel coat. Paddington, which follows Britain’s most beloved bear on his adventures around the capital with the Brown family, undeniably deserves a spot on the list of the best films set in London. Paddington takes his name from the London Underground station – where the Browns originally found him – and is famed for his gentle demeanour and iconic blue-and-red ensemble. The movie features an all-star cast – Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent and Ben Whishaw (as the voice of Paddington) – and is a delightful London adventure.
Attack The Block (2011)
A wild ride of science-fiction, action, comedy and horror, Attack The Block follows a teenage street gang who defend themselves – and their neighbours – from an alien invasion on a south-London council estate. The film is exactly as fun as it sounds: it’s an inventive approach to sci-fi horror, setting the action in the city’s everyday spaces. The cast was composed of teenagers from local council estates (including a young John Boyega in his first feature film) and each character is wonderfully written, imperfect and nuanced. Attack The Block mixes both bold genre stylings and incisive social commentary on class, race and social housing.
Usually mentioned in the same breath as My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) as a vital portrait of LGBTQ+ lives on screen, Nighthawks is widely considered a landmark in British gay cinema. It follows geography teacher Jim (Ken Robertson), who teaches in an east-London secondary school by day and cruises the city’s clubs at night. Set in the 1970s, Nighthawks captures the gay scene in London before AIDS and was hugely controversial on its release for its frank depiction of homosexuality. The film alternates between Jim’s mundane everyday moments, shot in documentary style, and long takes of the city’s neon-lit clubs in glorious, saturated colour.
Made in Dagenham (2010)
Made in Dagenham is a poignant dramatisation of the Ford sewing machinists’ strike in 1968. Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins) works alongside other women sewing upholstery for car seats at the Ford Motor Company factory – and discovers she is being paid much less than her male counterparts. Encouraged by her union rep, she and her colleagues go on strike. Starring Miranda Richardson, Geraldine James and Rosamund Pike, Made in Dagenham is an uplifting story of protest and solidarity – a vital tale of the strike that led to the introduction of the Equal Pay Act in Britain in 1970.
Bronco Bullfrog (1969)
Four teenagers – Del, Roy, Chris and Geoff – break into a café in Stratford, east London, taking a handful of money and some cake. This is the way Bronco Bullfrog opens, going on to chart the group’s angst and disillusionment, played out against East End bomb sites and greasy-spoon cafés. Most of the film was improvised, shot on a budget of £18,000, and the teenagers were played by amateur actors – all capturing a moment of London’s cultural history at the tail end of the Sixties. Today, Bronco Bullfrog is a forgotten classic – rumour has it that the master negative was disposed of in a skip and found by a film-lab employee in the mid-1980s – but it deserves its title as one of the best movies set in London.
Sparrows Can’t Sing (1963)
A charming Cockney comedy starring Barbara Windsor before her Carry On days, Sparrows Can’t Sing is full of vitality. It follows Maggie (Windsor) who has left her husband Charlie (James Booth) to begin a relationship with bus driver Bert – all while Charlie attempts to win her back. Directed by Joan Littlewood, Sparrows Can’t Sing is a slice of the Swinging Sixties in London, populated by a range of larger-than-life East End locals (it’s said that the Kray twins visited the set during filming) and a cacophony of Cockney rhyming slang.
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