Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts in Eastern Promises
Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts in Eastern Promises
Image: Supplied

Having visited London several times recently after a gap of 20 years, now seems as good a time as any to revisit the city via three examples of its long and acclaimed cinematic history.

Their view is vibrant and ever changing, though not always as pleasant as initial impressions  would have you believe. Two are by non-Britons and take a darker and more jaded approach, while one is simply a celebratory tale of young love.

It’s not a perfect city by any means — as many a long-suffering, Tory-battering resident will tell you without much prompting — but London remains fascinating and endlessly intriguing, a place with an ancient and shifting history.



Blow-Up — YouTube

Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 classic was the director’s foray into English-language cinema and exploration of the world beyond his native shores. It would be followed by the equally cold dissection of the strangeness of America offered by 1970’s Zabriskie Point.

Intrigued by the explosion of cultural expression and trendsetting freedoms in London’s Swinging Sixties, Antonioni focused his typically cool, philosophically probing lens on the anxieties and Cold War existential dread he saw lurking beneath the glittery façade in this tale adapted from a short story by Julio Cortázar.

David Hemmings, effortlessly hip in his tailored suits and Chelsea boots plays Thomas, a fashion photographer whose life is a series of glamorous shoots and sexually liberated assignations with models. Until, that is, he accidentally captures a dead body in the background of one of his photographs and becomes obsessed with the circumstances.  His journey in search of the truth takes him on a dark trip through the city that ultimately leaves him traumatised by the emptiness he finds around him.

Heavy with sometimes ponderous symbolism but always intriguing and probing, it’s a film serious Antonioni acolytes may write off as his worst. Yet it remains one of the best and most rewarding about the period, made while its chaotic idealism and seemingly endless possibility were actually unfolding. Blow-Up remains one of the most rewatchable and rewarding examples of a portrait of alienation and the ennui that permeates modern life. 




Eastern Promises — Rent or buy from Apple TV +

Canadian body horror legend David Cronenberg took a detour into crime in the early 2000s that resulted in the critically acclaimed A History of Violence in 2005 and a similar follow up in 2007. Both films starred Viggo Mortensen and this one, written by Steven Knight — who would rise to international fame as the creator of Peaky Blinders — is set in the murky  world of the Russian Mafia; a dark and violent vision of life in the belly of London’s underworld.

Mortensen offers a skilfully layered and subtle performance as Nikolai, an enforcer for the Russian mob, who, with an admittedly uncomfortably thick Russian accent, is making his quiet but determined way up the ranks. Then he encounters Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife looking to uncover the origins of a young woman who has died during childbirth. Anna’s quest soon places her in the firing line of the organisation which, led by the impulsive and violent Kirill (Vincent Cassel) aren’t interested in the slightest in giving her the information she seeks. With the police on the trail and his bosses on the warpath, Nikolai’s sympathy for her leads him into conflict with his bosses, setting the stage for a dark and bloody confrontation.

Though it delivers plenty of gore and in one instance wet, nude violence, Cronenberg manages to make the film more than a mere exercise in gangster genre thrills, thanks to his quiet focus on the bigger themes of sex and violence and their often uncomfortable but indelibly linked relationship.

Eastern Promises is no tourism advert for London, but it is one of the more adventurous and interesting looks at the city’s dark corners, held together by Cronenberg’s astute direction and Mortensen’s broodingly traumatised performance.




Rye Lane — Disney Plus

On the surface, director Raine Allen-Miller’s small but heartfelt film is just another London romcom — a meet cute between two seemingly opposite youngsters who go on a small adventure day out and find themselves increasingly drawn to each other. Due to a strong sense of place, which offers a visual love letter to the south London neighbourhoods in which it’s set, and two charming performances from its leads David Jonsson and Vivian Oparah, the film manages to rise above its genre conventions to offer one of the smartest and energetic, winsome and quietly satisfying love stories you’re likely to see in a while.

Jonsson plays Dom, a young man suffering from the trauma of an emotional break-up who meets the outgoing and vivacious Yas (Oparah) in the bathroom stalls at an art show. With nothing else going on and an embarrassing incident already linking them, the two find themselves hanging out over the course of a day that will see them involved in hilarious situations around the Rye Lane neighbourhood with its colourful mix of places and people.

By the end, even though you know what will inevitably happen, Rye Lane offers a satisfying look at a little-examined and vibrant corner of the city and some easily relatable truths about the sticky problems of the heart that will leave you feeling fuzzy, warm and hopeful for the couple’s future.


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