If you’re looking for something to watch, might we suggest some terrific historical movies set in Victorian London? Here are 13 to pick from.
A grim dark city sits upon the banks of the Thames. Smog pillows blackness into the air whilst fog laden streets are illuminated only by the gas lamps. A man walks down the cobbled streets with a top hat and a cane whilst women are corseted creatures – kept delicate in their high-society or are foul-mouthed sex workers on street corners. Kids squawk the news, gin flows like the river, and often murder occurs.
Oh yes, it’s Victorian London. A period that stretches from 1837 to 1901, and perhaps a favourite to depict on the big screen. Even television shows such as Ripper Street, Penny Dreadful, and more like to dive into the murky world of England’s most contemptuous era. Here’s a mix of 13 films, though, set in that time and location – from the brilliant to the, well, still worth a watch…
A British period romantic comedy starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Hugh Dancy which looks at the invention of the vibrator? What more would you want from a movie? Despite mixed reviews, Tanya Wexler’s Victorian London piece is a worthy watch. It sees Dancy and Gyllenhaal as people drawn together during the era’s obsession with the ‘mental illness’ known hysteria (otherwise known as, being a woman.) Witty and hilarious to watch, especially considering its subject matter, the chemistry between the two leads is unforgettable.
The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)
Much has been said about Stephen Norrington’s adaptation of Alan Moore’s comic series. Sadly, none of it very good. Fear not, however, because if you enjoy two-star fantasy romps as much as I do, then you’ll be in for a treat. Grouping together literature’s Victorian heroes such as Dr. Jekyll, Mina Harker, Dorian Gray, The Invisible Man, and, erm, Tom Sawyer, The League has to defeat a cunning enemy in the form of the mysterious M. It is a hammy fantasy flick with decent CGI and high-stakes action. There is also a bunch of one-liners that are so cheesy, it is worth sticking around for them, especially when they are uttered from Stuart Townsend’s foppish Gray.
The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017)
Dan Stevens stars as a brightly blue-eyed Charles Dickens in this heart-warming film from Bharat Nalluri. Whilst A Christmas Carol is perhaps one of the most adapted stories of all time, The Man Who Invented Christmas looks at the story behind this beloved one. Set in 1843, this movie looks at how Dickens wrote the acclaimed book, using his characters as spectres to haunt him throughout. What’s more, the movie uses the development as Scrooge as a conduit into Dickens’ familial struggles –especially his strenuous relationship with his father. It is great fun, especially as Dan Stevens has a charming energy as a writer stressed.
Dicken’s story A Christmas Carol has been covered by movies, television programmes, and television shows since Dickens created it over a century ago. Many folks will tell you their defining adaptation and whilst I so desperately wanted to include The Muppet’s Christmas Carol here, the absolute best depiction of curmudgeon Ebeneezer Scrooge is for me Alastair Sim’s in 1951. Directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, the movie looks at the frugal man who is haunted by spirits until he changes his cold-hearted ways. Whilst the film is more haunting and grim for kiddies (and they should certainly stick to the frog-led Michael Caine opus,) Sim’s work as a sombre man turned tender over the course of the film is indelible.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
If you ever want a musical that skewers Victorian London by diving straight into its fictional dark heart than look no further than Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd. A movie version of Stephen Sondheim’s bloody stage-show, Sweeney Todd revolves around the titular barber who slays his clientele for pie-filling. Bodies are grounded up by Mrs. Lovett and served to the unsuspecting public. Starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, and Alan Rickman, this is Gothic dream that wallows in the gore. With memorable songs such as ‘Pretty Women’ and ‘Epiphany’, this gruesome and grey film is a blood-curdling caper.
The Portrait Of Dorian Gray (1945)
Hurd Hatfield stars as a young mysterious man seems not to age in this vintage horror set in Victorian London. Albert Lewin’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s novel is a glorious depiction of atmosphere and reveal, honing in on the mystery of Gray whilst unravelling his acts of vice and debauchery in the murky city. Hatfield is fantastic in the lead role but supporting performances by Angela Lansbury and George Sanders are also of note.
However, it is the famed portrait reveal, heightened by Technicolor, that really stands out as the haggard painting becomes the weight around Gray’s neck.
Based on a play by Patrick Hamiton, Gaslight sees a woman driven mad by her criminal husband. Starring Ingrid Bergman as Paula, who is still recovering from the murder of her Aunt, she finds herself entrapped in a marriage to the conniving Gregory. Paula is subjected to mental abuse as Gregory convinces her that she is hearing footsteps and only imagining the gaslights flickering (hence the name, and also the now widely used term.) Bergman scooped up a Best Actress award for her role as the tortured Paula. She is greatly believable as the claustrophobic and psychological terror descends upon her. Driven to hysterics, the final confrontation between husband and wife is an engrossing watch. There’s also a noteworthy performance by a young Angela Lansbury, who also earned a nomination for her role as the cheeky maid.
The British version by Thorold Dickinson in 1940 is also worth a watch too, perhaps even more stripped down and thrilling than the Hollywood MGM version.
It just wouldn’t be a list about Victorian London based movies without mentioning at least one Sherlock Holmes movie (as there are many, many, many of them.) But we are not going to do that. Instead, we’re going to look at Disney’s delightful and underrated The Great Mouse Detective. An animal animated homage to Conan Doyle’s detective, this movie sees the elusive Basil and Dr. Dawson attempt to hunt down the evil Rattigan who wishes to rule England. An hilarious homage to Holmes with trademark and with some truly magnificent songs, this is a highly entertaining and colourful Disney classic.
What more can we say about this depiction of another Charles Dickens’ classi?. Perhaps one of the most famous musicals of all time, Carol Reed’s look at the titular impoverished orphan is a must-see watch. As Oliver falls into an unseemly crowd led by the rambunctious thief Fagin, Oliver finds that lurking beneath the common stealing is a terrifying world. Every single song is completely unforgettable, including numbers as ‘Consider Yourself’, ‘Reviewing the Situation’ and ‘As Long as He Needs Me’.
Oliver! is a constant family favourite and has memorable performances such as Ron Moody’s Fagin and Oliver Reed’s brutal, imposing Bill Sikes.
The Lodger (1944)
Unsurprisingly, there are many movies set in Victorian London which revolve around the Jack the Ripper cases (with varying levels of success.) Inspired by a Marie Belloc Lowndes novel and an Alfred Hitchcock silent film, The Lodger revolves around a couple who believe the new resident in their rooms, Mr. Slade, could be the dastardly Jack the Ripper. As their friend and music hall singer Kitty Langley is pursued by Slade, alongside George Dander’s Inspector John Warwick, they find mounting evidence to support their case. Could they unmask the killer before it is too late?
The Lodger is not a flawless movie and is blighted by how obvious it is who is the killer. That being said, Laird Cregar as Mr. Slade is such an imposing figure that it is worth watching the film for his performance alone.
The Limehouse Golem (2016)
Juan Carlos Medina’s Victorian horror, based on a book by Peter Ackroyd, is an underrated movie that features Bill Nighy has a maligned detective attempting to solve a series of heinous murders. At the same time, he is enthralled by the case of Olivia Cooke’s Elizabeth Stride, a woman accused of poisoning her husband. As the pair are unwittingly pulled together, can the Golem finally be unmasked? This Gothic mystery is full of plenty of carnage and attempts to unmask several suspects along the way. As the story keeps you engaged with its centric puzzle, two phenomenal lead performances by Nighy and Cooke add a human level intrigue whilst Douglas Booth’s role as Dan Leno is great comedic fodder.
David Lynch’s story about Joseph Merrick (here depicted as John) is a sweeping one. With John Hurt as Merrick, this sentimental movie looks at what makes us human. With Freddie Fancri’s black and white cinematography, the film is unabashed to showcase Victorian London’s insidious nature; looking at their obsessions freak-shows as well as depicting the grim realities for the poor and abused. As (the excitable and enigmatic) Anthony Hopkins’ Dr. Treves walks the cobbled streets or tries to woo the upper class, Lynch brings to life 1880s London in all its terrible glory.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931)
Rouben Mamouian’s pre-code horror film is defined as the key adaptation of this Robert Louis Stevenson’s great short story. It has even served as a blue-print for how the story is consistently adapted, including the Broadway musical.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde features the title doctor who drinks a concoction that turns him into a savage beast. The film would see Fredric March win an Oscar for his dual portrayals and it is very much deserved. March has a magnetic ability to draw you into Jekyll’s near maniacal quest and also to Hyde’s terribly brutal one. With a distinct look at sexual assault and manipulation, the movie focuses on Hyde’s violence as he directs it towards Ivy, a woman who also tried to seduce Jekyll – an early pre-notion to the doctor’s brooding sexual nature.
Mamouian’s work is horrific and stunning. The make-up transformations are worth a watch alone.
Additional: I tried to keep this article to one adaptation of one story. However, for a highly erotic and unusual portrayal of Stevenson’s story, it is worth seeking out 1981’s Udo Kier led The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne.
Leave further suggestions in the comments! And thank you for reading.
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