British cinema is as diverse and complex as its people. From gritty East-end gangster movies to the big screen pictures that showcase the country’s dry wit, these ten Greatest British films are so varied they incorporate not only the vast British landscape but also the UK’s sense of ideals, hardships and imagination.
Spanning several decades, I have rounded up some of the best British movies ever made. These are just some of the films the UK has to offer and I implore everyone to explore its independent sector as well as its mainstream features in all its glory.
“East is East” (1999) – Damien O’Donnell
In Manchester 1971, fish and chip shop owner George Khan enforces strict Pakistani Muslim rules in his household, despite his children being half English.
As his family grow up, they battle with their sense of belonging, being caught between a 70s England and arranged marriages. As they start to feel more British they individually begin to reject their father’s way of doing things – ultimately tearing the family apart.
The film deals with harsh realities and sensitive topics, the blending of two families, two beliefs and two ways of living – a touching narrative of acceptance and balance.
“Layer Cake” (2004) – Matthew Vaughn
Drugs, kidnapping and double-crosses. A cocaine dealer from London plans to move away from his life of crime, but has some last requests from his supplier – to kidnap the teenage daughter of a rival dealer and to purchase a large order of ecstasy pills.
To satisfy his own financial gain and ensure a comfortable retirement, the cocaine-dealer must selfishly outsmart, outthink and outdo his criminal comrades.
Interestingly Daniel Craig’s character is never named in the movie and appears only as XXXX in the end credits. This goes a long way in emphasising the capital’s seedy underground drugs culture.
Thrilling from beginning to end, the movie, much like its novel counterpart is a tale of trust and betrayal, loss and rewards.
“Belle” (2014) – Amma Asante
A period drama inspired by the 1779 painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a woman born in the West Indies, of mixed heritage, and born out of illegitimacy.
The fictional film centres on Dido’s relationship with an aspiring lawyer, during a time in Great Britain where slavery was still rife. Despite her mixed-heritage Dido becomes an heiress, due to the money left to her from her white admiral father. She fights to be seen as refined as her cousin, defying the ideal of beauty and convention.
The narrative captures the importance of Dido and John’s role in the abolition of slavery in Britain. In Amma Asante’s second feature film, she applies an intelligent, tender approach to a somewhat risky subject matter.
“Secrets & Lies” (1996) – Mike Leigh
You can’t have a list of the best British films without including a Mike Leigh movie. Known for displaying a reality we can relate to with a raw, uncompromising intensity, Secrets & Lies is by far my favourite of his.
Brenda Blethyn’s performance as Cynthia, an emotional down-trodden mother impressed Cannes with her shaky, slightly unstable portrayal of hardship and denial. Cynthia’s world is turned upside down when Hortense appears out of the blue claiming to be her daughter. Only this can’t be possible, for Cynthia is white and Hortense is black.
While the movie deals with intense emotional situations, like with any Mike Leigh film, it is heart-warming with moments of clarity and humour.
“The Full Monty” (1997) – Peter Cattaneo
This is one of the most up-lifting British movies ever to grace the big screen. So much so, it has since been turned into a West End theatre production.
After loosing his job from a steel factory, Gaz finds out his wife wants to sue him for missed child support payments. Desperate to put things right, Gaz enlists his friend Dave to put together a striptease act. Together they recruit several other unemployed misfits and begin learning how to dance, determined to succeed the men promise full-frontal nudity in their show.
Full of Northern charm, the feel-good film is set in Sheffield and explores major subjects including depression, homosexuality and working class culture.
“This is England” (2006) – Shane Meadows
The story is based on young skinheads in the Midlands, England, 1983.
Shaun, who lost his father in the Falklands War, earns the respect of the skinheads when he stands up for himself against their continuous teasing. After becoming a part of the gang, the return of Combo, a racist ex-convict divides the group. Shaun sides with Combo and sees him as a father figure.
This is England is an era-defining film which illustrates how white nationalists adopted a subculture from the West Indies, which celebrated soul, ska and reggae music. The title is a direct reference to the character Combo’s nationalist speech.
Shane Meadows has since gone on to continue the story in television series’ This is England ’86, This is England ’88 and This is England ‘90
“Alfie” (1966) – Lewis Gilbert
Ladies man bent on promiscuity, Michael Caine is a chauffeur in postwar London. Despite getting his girlfriend pregnant, Alfie continues his womanising ways after taking off on vacation and hiding from his commitments.
The cheeky-chappy who has led a self-centred life is forced to recognise his uncaring ways and make a change. Often talking directly to the camera to justify his actions, Alfie is continuously seen contradicting himself.
A film that addresses loneliness, breakdowns and one-night stands, Alfie is one of Michael Caine’s finest. The actor plays the part with just the right about of sensitivity, aiding to the complex characteristics of the protagonist.
“Monty Python’s Life of Brian” (1979) – Terry Jones
This hilarious tale of a young Jewish man caught up in a series of ridiculous and unfortunate events is rife with Monty Python’s signature absurd sense of humour.
Hapless Brian was born the same day and next door to Jesus Christ and subsequently garners the reputation as the Messiah by mistake. Not only does Brian spend his days dodging his followers, he also has to put up with the pompous Pontius Pilate.
Full of belly laughs, this satirical comedy is by far one of the stand-out films of the 1970s and has even been named the ‘greatest comedy film of all time’ by several magazines and television networks. This is an absolute must-see movie.
“Trainspotting” (1996) – Danny Boyle
Danny Boyle’s name is synonymous with British filmmaking – but I am always surprised to hear not many people have embraced or worse still, seen the movie Trainspotting.
Perhaps the thick Scottish accents go some way in viewers turning off and tuning out – but trust me on this, if you give it a real go, you won’t be disappointed.
Based on Irvine Welsh’s book of the same name, Mark Renton (played by Ewan McGregor) is a heroin addict in the urban squalor of Edinburgh in the 1980s. Making the effort to get sober and sort out his life, Renton moves to London – only to be followed by his unreliable friends Sickboy, Begbie and Spud.
Unable to truly escape his life in Scotland, the film explores Mark living in poverty, his drug addiction and withdrawal, and depression. Trainspotting 2 is currently being filmed in Scotland, so what better time to watch the first movie.
“Great Expectations” (1946) – David Lean
One of the greatest novels of all time just happens to be one of the greatest British movies of all time.
The 1940s adaptation of the Dickens classic centres around the cold and unfeeling Miss Havisham, a woman scored from being left at the alter in her youth. Feeling utterly betrayed – all the clocks in her mansion stop at the exact time her fiancé leaves her, a bitter reminder of what transpired.
Yet she is Pip’s first love – a young man whom she knew as a child. It would seem destiny has brought them together, for he is an eyewitness to the colourful events surrounding Miss Havisham when he returns to his childhood haunt to become a gentleman. But can Pip save her from herself?
A tale that fits seamlessly with the images of characters created from the novel, this somewhat chilling version of the story is a haunting rework of the narrative that will surprise even those familiar with the book.