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British Cinema: A Binge-Watching Crash Course

British Cinema: A Binge-Watching Crash Course

British Film

More than ever, limitless options plague the modern media consumer, but if you've got 48 hours to kill, and want to sharpen your British film palate, we've curated your binge-watch buffet with 17 chronological must-sees.


17. The 39 Steps (1935)
One of Alfred Hitchcock's earlier triumphs, this elegant espionage thriller, inspired by John Buchan's novel of the same name, stars Robert Donat and Madeliene Carroll as two people intent on stopping a British spy ring, and it's enthralling from its theatre-set opening to its dramatic race through the stunning Scottish Highlands.


16. The Red Shoes (1948)
With this backstage drama, filmmaking duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger had delivered one of the finest Technicolor masterworks of all time, casting leading redhead Moira Shearer in the classic role of a dancer tortured by an unwavering impresario (played by Marius Goring), and torn between her art and her love life. Shearer's co-stars included many dancers from The Royal Ballet, a company based at the majestic Royal Opera House in London's Covent Garden.


15. Victim (1961)
Often noted as the first film to use the word "homosexual," Basil Dearden's tense drama about gay struggles, inner turmoil, and queer-based blackmail holds a firm place in the "celluloid closet" canon, and features a soulful performance from lead actor Dirk Bogarde. Key shooting locations for the film included The Salisbury, a pub on whispery St. Martin's Lane, also in Covent Garden.


14. Blow Up (1962)
Michelangelo Antonioni's elliptical mystery about lust, fashion, photography, and murder remains one of the most stylish films to come out of the U.K., capturing its swinging Mod era and featuring lead stars David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave in a story as avant garde as it is intoxicating. The movie's pivotal murder scene, as well as multiple secret rendezvous, were filmed at the picturesque Maryon Park in London's south east region of Charlton.


13. Alfie (1966)
Long before there was an ill-advised remake starring Jude Law, there was Michael Caine in the ultimate story about the pleasures and plights of a lady-killer. Co-starring Julia Foster, Vivien Merchant, and Shirley Anne Field, Lewis Gilbert's randy comedy was the first to be recommended for "mature audiences" by the Motion Picture Association of America. The movie is bookended by scenes with its womanizing antihero walking along London's iconic Waterloo Bridge.


12. Kes (1969)
Kes is kitchen-sink maestro Ken Loach's magnum opus, an aching yet uplifting tale about a perpetually abused teenager (played by David Bradley) who finds balance, redemption, companionship, and hope in his relationship with a kestrel he steals from a farm and claims as his own. Any viewer, of any age, can connect to the themes of this drama, which also illustrates the rural, working-class villages of Yorkshire, and was shot on location.


11. My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)
Radicalism doesn't get much more poetic than in this politically fueled romance directed by Stephen Frears and written by Hanif Kureishi. Its densely layered content--a skinhead falling in love with a Pakistani in Thatcher's London--is both delicately handled and performed, with Gordon Warnecke and a young Daniel Day-Lewis as the lead couple. The setting for the story is Battersea, an intriguingly offbeat, inner-city district in London's Wandsworth borough.

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10. Maurice (1987)
Based on E.M. Forster's novel of the same name, and created by the powerhouse filmmaking team of Ismael Merchant and James Ivory, Maurice charts the romantic and sexual awakening of its title character (Maurice Hall), a gay student at England's illustrious Cambridge University, who eventually finds love. Shot on the location, the movie features Cambridge's comely King's College quadrangles.


9. Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988)
Ultimately becoming a powerful queer voice in cinema, and an ace at depicting working-class English life, Terrence Davies has been highly lauded for his semi-autobiographical work, including the coming-of-age tale The Long Day Closes. But this tuneful mood piece, inspired by his own family and love for musicals, announced his arrival as a master. The movie's most notable shooting spot was a home on London's well-preserved Whistler Street, which mirrored Davies's own childhood home on Kensington Street in Liverpool.


8. Secrets & Lies (1996)
Mike Leigh, that great storyteller of deep humanism and empathy, hit a personal high with this indie darling about a black optometrist (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) who seeks out her easily rattled white birth mother (Brenda Blethyn) in the modest yet charming Whitehouse Way area of London's Southgate. Leigh's heartfelt handling of character rapport made this one of the best films about race relations in recent memory.


7. Trainspotting (1996)
Often imitated but never duplicated, the drug-fueled rebel yell of '90s cinema was this unapologetic adaptation of Irvine Welsh's ode to hell-raising, heroin, and whether or not both can be overcome. The movie was a landmark for the budding Weinstein empire, and it announced the breakthrough of director Danny Boyle and star Ewan McGregor. The hyperkinetic, introductory chase scene, in which which McGregor's character and his friends are pursued for shoplifting, was shot along the ever-bustling Princes Street in Edinburgh.

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6. Notting Hill (1999)
Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant lead the cast of this vastly beloved romantic comedy, created by director Roger Michell and Four Weddings and a Funeral writer Richard Curtis. Following the courtship of a British bookstore owner (Grant) and a Hollywood bombshell (Roberts), the movie was set and shot in the titular London town, a bustling region that attracts crowds of locals and tourists with its wealth of culture and alluring shops.


5. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
It could have easily become another throwaway entry in the ever-burgeoning zombie genre, but Edgar Wright's undead sensation, an airtight collaboration with stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, quickly cemented itself as a modern classic, both for its frank and carefree humor and its biting social commentary. Though filmed primarily at London's Ealing Studios, exteriors for the movie were shot in North London's Crouch End, East Finchley, Finsbury Park, and Muswell HillHill.

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4. The Queen (2006)
If you're having a binge on British movies, The Queen is an absolute must. The film takes places in the months following the death of Princess Diana. It chronicles Queen Elizabeth II life as she struggles to juggle the ramifications of the events and the responsibility of the Crown. Though set in the shadow of the Queen, the film explores the British countryside as well as many of the most famous Royal homes and palaces. If you're interested in the lives of the Windsor family, watch The Queen.

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3. Attonement (2007)
British director Joe Wright's crowning achievement is this broad-scale saga of love and war, starring UK favorites Keira Knightley and James McAvoy as two people divided by deceit and the deadly travails of World War II. An Oscar darling, Atonement is divided into three distinct acts, and its first, taking place entirely at the family home of Knightley's character, was filmed at the breathtaking Stokesay Court, a country estate in Shropshire, England.


2. Hunger (2008)
More than Shame, more than 12 Years a Slave, this cinematic debut from English visual artist Steve McQueen was a gorgeously unsettling testament to how a visionary can cross mediums, using his innate compositional eye to bring beauty to even the harshest of environments--in this case, a dank prison where Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) starved himself in the name of revolt amid the Irish hunger strike of 1981. Even a feces-smeared wall looked deeply poetic through McQueen's lens. Though partly demolished, the film's fascinating setting of Maze Prison still exists in Northern Ireland's County Down, where its future use remains uncertain.

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1. Pride (2014)
Based on the true story of the British miner's strike of 1984, this celebratory dramedy--and surprise hit--united acting legends like Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton with younger stars like Andrew Scott, who gave life to the gay and lesbian activists who made a mark on history. One of the film's pivotal locations is Onllwyn, a small, exploration-worthy mining village in the Neath Port Talbot borough of Wales.

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