Glitz and decay: the two faces of Victorian England in the cinema


Victorian England in the cinema: the two faces of an era

L’It was Victorian it was the 63-year period from 1837 to 1901, which marked the reign of the Queen Victoria of England but which saw above all the waning phase of life in the fields as cities were founded and proliferated everywhere in the Land of Albion.
In those years there was a rapid increase in the population, and with it rural unemployment and the consequent migration to the cities, where many people were forced to accept inhuman working hours and lived in very bad conditions from many points of view.

There Queen Victoria he ascended the throne at 18 years after the death of his uncle, William IV, and is the second longest-lived British monarch (surpassed by “our” Queen Elizabeth II). With her, Great Britain lived one of the most prosperous times, but while the Kingdom was prospering some personal freedoms of the individual and above all morals were undermined. Victorian it was geared towards a kind of puritanism, with the religion which took on a leading role.

All this accentuated the fragmentation of social classes, resulting in a clear split that showed the two sides of England.
London stood as the capital of the Victorian era, the homeland ofaristocracy but also the metropolis of vice. With its numerous periodicals, newspapers and magazines it also became an inspiration for literature (above all for Charles Dickens), and above all a place where it was created and consumed in large quantities, but it was also the city of penny dreadful, low-cost periodicals, accessible more or less to all but of low quality.

It was also the largest city in the world and could boast a large and functional port, which as we know it guarantees enormous benefits from an economic point of view but also crime, degradation and prostitution.

The two faces of Victorian London and more generally of England of this era they have therefore always been an evident appeal for art and especially for cinema, which has repeatedly set stories of all kinds in this fascinating and at the same time chilling context, ideal for a narration.

victorian england cinema

Sweeney Todd, the evil barber of Fleet Street

If we think of these two aspects in antithesis, it is clear that the London of the mid-19th century was the ideal place and time for Tim Burton to give vent to all his genius. In Sweeney Todd – The evil barber of Fleet Street, remake of the namesake musical from Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, the director gives us two intense hours in a dirty and mean English capital, which nevertheless retains the undisputed charm of the Victorian era.

History is one of the greatest London metropolitan legends, which over the years has always captivated the collective imagination, suspended between fantasy and reality, in a city where in that same period Jack the Ripper sowed terror (and in this regard we also remember From Hell by the Huges brothers).

Sweeney Todd has found in its own way the solution to the problem of overpopulation and hunger, and in this undoubtedly the narration of this work excels, as already confirmed by the creation Burtonian which also gives us a disturbing and enchanting aesthetic.


Nolan’s London in The Prestige

Another more beautiful film set in the Victorian era, that is, of a completely different invoice The Prestige from Christopher Nolan. His London at the end of the 19th century is only thehabitat ideal to let us enter the world of illusionists, particularly in vogue at that time, with the story of Alfred Borden and his rival Robert Angier, masterfully interpreted by Hugh Jackman And Christian Bale. Nolan suitable for the big screen novel by Christopher Priest and does it in a sublime way, literally gluing the viewer to the chair with a narrative that is not affected by the more than two hours overall and takes us to an English capital where vice, corruption and crime are less palpable than Sweeney Todd but in which danger is equally breathed, also supported by a fascinating aesthetic and the admirable work of Wally Pfister in photography.

victorian england cinema

Sherlock Holmes: the two faces of Victorian England according to Guy Ritchie

To rediscover the two faces of Victorian London described above, we can instead immerse ourselves in the vision of Sherlock Holmes from Guy Ritchie, where poverty, crime and prostitution were the order of the day.
There are many representations of the famous investigator born from the pen of Arthur Conan Doyle, even prior to the work of Ritchie, but here the fantastic architecture, the pomp of the aristocracy do quite well to counteract the dynamics of the infamous neighborhoods of the city, theater of vice and delinquency, of gambling and clandestine fighting.
Even closer to this setting is the sequel, Sherlock Holmes: a game of shadows, a film with dense dark colors like fog, the so-called pea soup that infested the city especially in those years.

Oliver Twist by Roman Polanski

And if we mentioned Dickens at the beginning, how can we not insert it here Oliver Twist, the film by Roman Polanski taken from novel of the English author?
With England in the middle of the industrial revolution, we see the perfect representation of the misery of the most social classes, the exploitation of children, hunger and a putrid and muddy city.
Polanski’s London is similar to that of Dickens, and is probably one of the darkest and most gloomy of film representations.

victorian england cinema

The power of black and white in Lynch’s Elephant Man

However, the smoky atmospheres of Victorian England are also well represented in the black and white ofElephant Man from David Lynch, undisputed masterpiece by the American director, who so perfectly shows the idea of ​​the poverty and filth of a bleak era like this London of 1840.

The director of photography himself Freddie Francis, in David Lynch. Getting lost is wonderful, states that since that era was indeed the dawn of the photographic era, probably “an audience that sees a Victorian film with black and white photography unconsciously accepts it as the original atmosphere.”

The feature films set in the Victorian era certainly do not end here, and we could name many of them from Young Victoria to Dorian Gray, passing through particular Hysteria works or performance capture films such as A Christmas Carol by Robert Zemeckis, up to the recent The Aeronauts.

With the advent of streaming platforms then, and the exponential growth of content, they have been especially the TV series to play on this double side of the coin and be enchanted with the fascinating settings of Victorian England, but here we go to another territory.
Staying at the cinema, however, we have seen that over the years various directors have been able to approach the Great Britain of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in a more than dignified way, while differing in genres and themes, and undoubtedly will continue to do so, because few others reality and few other eras manage to give such an ambivalent charm, leaving the freedom to indulge in the narratives or drawing inspiration from the boundless literature of that period.


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