A selection of UK movies that left their mark, that veered away from the Hollywood vibe and portray contemporary British culture before the Age of the Internet
These are films I enjoyed in my younger days, just out of school, forever raiding my absent brother’s legendary stack of VHS movies.
Each review includes the classic quotes and moments that make each film special.
Director: J. K. Amalou Year: 1997
Co-starring ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser, infamous as a top gangland enforcer in the Kray-Twin era, and Vincent Regan, a familiar face for fans of the Ancient Greece genre, Hard Men is a gangster movie portraying leery, swaggering cockney gangster geezers at their worst, or best, depending on your outlook.
The synopsis is of three underworld debt collectors ‘Tone’, ‘Speed’ and ‘Bear’ who are in the middle of a showdown when Tone discovers over the phone that he’s a new father. Tone quickly decides he wants to ditch the gangland lifestyle to make a better life for his new family yet their crime boss ‘Pops Den’ has other plans. Speed and Bear decide that Tone’s subsequent last night alive should go out with a bang, in every sense.
Frankie Fraser’s part as ‘Pops Den’ gives the movie an authentic gangster feel while Lee Ross is well cast to play the part of Speed; an unpredictably violent, coked-up loose-cannon. The story centres around the three lads prowling the streets of London in a gold Rolls Royce, drinking, fighting and getting in everyone’s faces, along to a feisty rock soundtrack.
Memorable scenes include Tone singing a lullaby down the phone to his baby in a greasy spoon cafe while the other two look on, and Bear and Speed finding out the two ladies they picked up earlier are in fact drag queens.
Although much rougher around the edges than Guy Richie’s later gangster movies, it is in a similar mould and has plenty of fun twists and turns before its climax.
Nuns on the Run
Director: Jonathan Lynn Year: 1990
Like in ‘Hard Men’, two gangsters, ‘Charlie’ and ‘Brian’, are faced with the dilemma of how to get out of the crime game with their lives intact.
They’re sent on a job that their boss ‘Casey’ intends to be their last; to rob a triad gang of their massive stash of drugs money. But the two turn the tables and steal the money for themselves, and in an ensuing chaotic hot pursuit Charlie and Brian realise their only sanctuary is a nunnery.
Of course, if the nuns find them skulking around, they’ll call the police …so there is only one thing for it; the two desperados go undercover as nuns.
Complete with squeaky voices, stuffed bras and extreme modesty, they keep the cops and crims off their backs long enough to escape on the soonest flight to Brasil.
All the while, Brian’s struggle to shoehorn his newfound romance into their plans almost meets disaster. Must he choose between freedom and love, or can he have both?
Coltraine’s performance as a man overcompensating for his strapping build with a dainty disposition is particularly hilarious and the film bounds along nicely from one awkward shenanigan to the next, despite a dialogue laden with much farce.
The scene where Charlie takes the opportunity to sit in with a class of gorgeous, young convent women students showering after a gym class gave me a wry guffaw.
Although it’s pretty PG, it’s not so PC. Nuns on the Run is a light-hearted movie that doesn’t take itself seriously.
Director: Justin Kerrigan Year: 1999
Human Traffic focuses on the ecstasy rave culture of nineties Britain in Wales’ capital city; Cardiff.
It also examines themes around the emotional tumult in the most anxious but exciting period of adulthood; your 20s.
The idea was to make this comedy a realistic portrayal of the UK’s club scene in the final era before the numbing effects of social media entered our lives.
Although a lot of the movie’s cultural references haven’t aged well, it manages to candidly lay bare the ups and downs of a party animal lifestyle.
Every week of ‘Jip’, ‘Lulu’, ‘Koop’, ‘Moff’, and ‘Nina’s lives exist for the weekend when they can take their paltry earnings and experience the most euphoric time together, bouncing to psychedelic tunes with a cocktail of drugs and booze.
The drawback of partying hard; the paranoia and crushing comedowns, are played out in frequent sidesplitting imaginary cutscenes. Jip’s literal shafting by his shop-store boss with a £50 over his mouth and Lulu and Nina envisioning two stoner students talking out their arses, to name two, kept me and my friends laughing our heads off throughout.
Scenes such as when Jip audaciously dupes a nightclub owner into believing he is there to promote the nightclub for the ‘mixmag’ magazine so he can gain entry without a ticket helped give this movie a large cult following.
The soundtrack by DJs like Fatboy Slim, Underworld and Armand Van Helden is an absolute belter.
If you’ve ever been in the rave scene then this is definitely worth checking out.
Director: Danny Boyle Year: 1996
The most successful movie in this list with its massive cult fanbase, it’s laden with iconic scenes and characters. It’s a ‘Generation X’ favourite.
This dark comedic drama follows the ups and downs of five dysfunctional friends wrestling with the banality of their young lives and various vices.
The characters are all so quirky; from the violent savagery of ‘Begbie’, (brilliantly played by Robert Carlyle) the spaced out ‘Spud’, (Ewen Bremner) to the straight-laced ‘Tommy’ (Kevin McKidd) and the main protagonist, wily ‘Rent Boy’ (Ewan McGregor) with his fluttering flame ‘Diane’ (played by Kelly Macdonald) to name a few.
With so many zany subplots along the way, the film follows the main protagonist Mark ‘Rent Boy’ Renton as he struggles to wrest himself off his heroin addiction. First, suffering the ordeal of ‘cold turkey’ then the grim clarity of sobriety before finally escaping to the bright lights of London.
His so-called friends don’t make that easy, however, yet a one-off drugs sale might give him the windfall he needs to escape Begbie’s insufferable companionship and make a better life.
Far too many memorable scenes to mention; Renton’s dream-like swim in ‘Scotland’s worst toilet’, Begby’s casual beer glass thrown onto the dance floor below just so he can have a brawl, and Spud’s dopey job interview are my favourites.
The film is famous for its often humorous cutscenes and the kind of soporific soundtrack that is a Danny Boyle trademark. It’s probably the coolest movie of the ’90s, even if it is mildly depressing.
Director: Mick Jackson Year made: 1984
Threads is a 1980s docudrama depicting the likely outcome if the USSR were ever to attack the UK in a nuclear war.
With no thrills acting and special effects typical of low-budget UK movie productions bereft of CGI or Hollywood budgets, this staid production none-the-less hit me like a hammer when I watched it a few years ago, and that was largely because the plot was based on expert opinions of what would probably happen in such a nightmare.
Set in Sheffield, the producers wanted to depict the effects of nuclear war on one of the UK’s major urban centres and its citizens. It starts with introducing a senior municipal leader and a young couple named ‘Jimmy’ and ‘Ruth’ who are planning to marry after finding out Ruth is pregnant.
Yet, the global political situation is quickly unravelling as a skirmish in Iran puts the USA and USSR on course for total war.
The war escalates to a full nuclear exchange and a warhead hits the city, largely obliterating it.
There’s no need to warn about spoiling the plot here, folks, because the educated person can guess what happens next.
Millions die and the survivors are quickly forced to contend with the effects of radiation poisoning and a breakdown of food supplies then civilised society as the days, weeks and months pass.
A decade later and Britain has been reduced to a crude, barbaric society. Children born after the war are intellectually underdeveloped and speak a stunted form of English.
Poignant scenes include the senior municipal leader reassuring his wife everything will be ok with the stiff upper lip for which Brits are world-renowned before he heads down to a bunker in which he will be eventually entombed, and a soul-shattered Ruth gnawing on a dead rat as a man attempts conversation with her.
The no-thrills style of acting only adds weight to the film’s harrowing realism.
After I watched this movie it was lunchtime, and I have never been more grateful to have a plate of food in front of me than at that moment. If ever a film could be used to help define the word ‘bleak’, this is it.
Dead Man’s Shoes
Director: Shane Meadows Year: 2004
Considering this movie was produced with a budget of less than £750,000, Dead Man’s Shoes is a thoroughly watchable dark tale of a lone, lethal ex-soldier out for revenge against the lowlifes who bullied his brother.
Its success is borne upon the shoulders of Paddy Considine’s powerful portrayal of ‘Richard’ — a deeply troubled ex ‘Para’, and Toby Kebbell’s amazingly convincing performance as ‘Anthony’ — Richard’s mentally handicapped younger brother.
Set in England’s Peak District, the story follows Richard, with Anthony in tow, as he tracks, torments and terrorises a gang of small-time drug dealing bullies led by ‘Sonny’.
The film builds satisfyingly to its climax, as scenes alternate between Richard and Anthony’s touching moments together and Richard’s ever meaner trick attacks on the gang, leaving the worst of them to last, though not before a jarring, unexpected twist.
A sign of a good actor is when their character evokes feelings from the audience towards them, good or bad. Gary Stretch, the man who plays the sleazy, seedy Sonny, does that well as he succumbs to a most gratifying downfall.
This is a good watch although the film’s wooden script and cast means it might not keep you coming back to it again and again.
Highlights include scenic shots of the two brothers hiking across England’s hill-land and Richard brazenly screaming at drug dealer ‘Herbie’ in the middle of a social club.