London: The Modern Babylon: Film Review

A century in the life of the British capital.

Julien Temple's sprawling documentary pays tribute to the diverse people, sounds and neighborhoods of London.

A kaleidoscopic collage of social history and popular culture, momentous public events and intimate human stories, this sprawling documentary attempts the ambitious feat of telling the story of London from the dawn of the 20th century to today. Scheduled for limited release in UK cinemas this week to coincide with the London Olympic celebrations, Julien Temple’s archive-heavy film is a sensually rich and emotionally engaging experience. Partly backed by the BBC and the British Film Institute, it is a solid piece of work with niche theatrical potential among Anglophile culture vultures outside Britain, but will most likely find its natural audience on TV and DVD.

Emerging from the punk rock scene that energised London in the late 1970s, Temple has made several dramatic features in his three-decade career, but he remains most acclaimed for his socially conscious music-themed documentaries on the Sex Pistols, The Clash singer Joe Strummer, the Glastonbury rock festival, the city of Detroit and more. The irreverent spirit of punk still informs his directing style here -- not only in specific references like the Clash and Pistols songs that pepper the lively soundtrack, but also in the general celebration of London-based rebels and anarchists through the ages.

Incorporating hand-cranked newsreel footage from the end of the 19th century, London: The Modern Babylon has a freewheeling but loosely chronological structure. Moving fluidly through a dense patchwork of extensive archive clips, songs, poems, and interview snippets both old and new, Temple charts the city’s bumpy evolution from Victorian capital of the British Empire to multicultural Olympic citadel of 2012. In between newsreel flashbacks, Temple inserts quickfire excerpts from classic London films including Hitchcock’s Blackmail, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday and his own lavish musical flop, Absolute Beginners.

Woven into the busy musical soundtrack, a starry cast of narrators including Michael Gambon, Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton and Andy Serkis read quotations from WB Yeats, William Blake, TS Eliot and others. Meanwhile, famous London icons such as Michael Caine, David Bowie, Terence Stamp, Julie Christie, Quentin Crisp and the Rolling Stones all appear in archive cameos. Temple also includes first-hand reflections from a wide variety of Londoners including the 107-year-old former suffragette Hetty Bower, rocker Ray Davies of The Kinks and the veteran left-wing politician Tony Benn – plus a background chorus of storekeepers, dock workers, market traders and other cockney archetypes.

London: The Modern Babylon is an upbeat celebration of a city where over 40 per cent of the population are now non-British, and over 300 languages are spoken. But Temple is no simplistic propagandist, also exposing the city’s social and economic divisions, terrorist bombs and violent street riots. He pays unequivocal homage to successive waves of incoming immigrants who have reshaped and revitalised London -- from Jewish to Irish, Caribbean to Indian - but not without pausing to show the ugly racial tensions they often faced.

Squeezing more than a century of city life into just over two hours, London: The Modern Babylon inevitably offers only an impressionistic drive-by view of some momentous events: World War II bombing raids, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, Winston Churchill’s funeral, the current financial crash. But precisely because it is such a messy and fragmented sprawl, Temple’s film does capture some of the true flavour of modern London – plus, most importantly, its heady mix of human stories.

Venue: London press screening,
Production companies: BBC, BFI, Nitrate Films
Cast: Michael Gambon, Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Andy Serkis
Director: Julien Temple
Producers: Amanda Temple, Stephen Malit
Cinematography: Steve Organ
Editor: Caroline Richards
Music: JC Carroll
Sales agent: Ealing Metro International
Rating TBC, 128 minutes