London Spaces in Contemporary British Cinema: Notting Hill and South West 9

Nick Redfern

<1> In their analysis of the representation of European cities in contemporary cinema, Ewa Mazierska and Laura Rascaroli identify two facets of London in contemporary British film: the ‘posh’ and the ‘chaotic,’ that are ‘the images of fragments of a metropolis, rather than portraits of the whole city’ (171). Like much writing on contemporary British filmmaking, this conception of London is understood in terms of class (the ‘posh’ London of Sliding Doors [Peter Howitt, 1998] and Notting Hill [Roger Michell, 1999]) and multiculturalism (the ‘chaotic’ London of Beautiful People [Jasmin Dizdar, 1998] and Wonderland [Michael Winterbottom, 1999]), while the issue of cinematic space as social space is reified (Redfern 97). The role of London in these films is reduced to that of a ‘backdrop’ against which narratives of class or ethnicity are played out, rather being seen to ‘actually [generate] the narrative both in prose and films, assuming the status of a character and becoming the fabric of the narrative itself’ (Konstantarakos 1).

<2> In this essay I compare and contrast the posh London of Notting Hill and the chaotic London of South West 9 (Richard Parry, 2001), but I do so through looking at the way these films represent social space in London. I argue that though these films deal with the same subject matter – the relationships between the global and the local, private and public spaces, the rural and the urban, and movement and stasis – they present very different experiences of the city. Each film privileges a localised face-to-face community over the global, but where Notting Hill adopts a conservative approach in representing Notting Hill as a collection of private spaces populated by a homogenous community, South West 9 may be described as presenting a more social democratic view, in which Brixton (the film’s title refers to this area’s London postcode) is a collection of public spaces peopled by a diverse and hybrid group.

Notting Hill

<3> The love story of Notting Hill brings together William Thacker, the English owner of a failing travel bookshop, and Anna Scott, an American actor and international film star, and through the ups and downs of their relationship contrasts their lifestyles. Anna’s world is marked by its global scale, its public spaces, and the high mobility of those who inhabit this world, and this is shown to be less desirable than the Arcadian vision of William’s England, with its local, rural community, and its private spaces. The denouement of the narrative comes with Anna’s acceptance of William’s lifestyle.

<4> The opening credit sequence of Notting Hill is comprised of a series of images of Anna as a global celebrity. Her numerous changes of costume and hairstyle convey an image of artificiality and impermanence, and her confinement to the red carpet of movie premieres combined with the alienating effect of photographer’s flashguns separates Anna from her audience. This creates an impression of Anna as ‘other,’ and Nick James describes Julia Roberts’ portrayal of Anna in terms of ‘the modern movie star as enigmatic alien being,’ ‘otherworldliness,’ and ‘spooky glamour’ (20). As a global star Anna is cut off from particular places. The film she stars in, ‘Helix,’ has a multinational cast, and is the product of a transnational film industry that eliminates the specificity of place, mixing elements from various cultures seemingly at random – one journalist refers to ‘Helix’ as a ‘cross between Close Encounters and Jean de Florette.’ Set in outer space ‘Helix’ lacks any associations with a particular place, as does her next film, which takes place aboard a submarine.

<5> Impermanence and placelessness are also evident with Anna’s constant movement. She is rarely in one place for any length of time, visiting William when she happens to be in London for a couple of days, and her unannounced appearances in Notting Hill take on a random quality. The spaces associated with Anna also reflect the itinerant lifestyle of the movie star as she inhabits hotels such as the Ritz and the Savoy. Though she refers to an apartment, Anna is not associated with a space that can be called home until the end of the film when she has given up the global to remain in London with William. This randomness also crops up when Anna’s boyfriend arrives unannounced in London, and the uncertain and transitory nature of her relationships with him, William, and the journalists who are given just five minutes of her time is a product of her mobility. Hotels are also places of deception: Anna is force to take the names of cartoon characters (e.g., Wilma Flintstone, Pocahontas) to conceal her presence, and William must pretend to be a journalist and a hotel waiter.

<6> In this public world Anna’s every move is caught on camera, either by the paparazzi at premieres, or on the cover of a magazine, or in her professional capacity as an actress. The opening sequence includes shots of Anna relaxing on set between takes, suggesting that there is no place to hide in this world: even when she is not performing before the cameras, Anna is still ‘on camera.’ This is also evident in the scene where William visits Anna on the set of a production of Henry James’ Wings of the Dove, and as she is wearing a radio microphone he overhears her telling one of her colleagues that he is nobody. William and Anna try to enjoy a meal, and the positioning of their table on the edge of the restaurant and behind a partition indicates their desire for privacy, but they are unable to exclude the other customers and the intrusive conversation of group of men expressing their opinion that Anna is ‘absolutely gagging for it’ forces them to leave the restaurant. William’s rejection of Anna towards the end of the film is also a product of his inability to escape her star image, and at various points in the film images of Anna intrude on Williams’s world seemingly at random. By coincidence Spike’s videofest includes an Anna Scott movie after William has just met her, promotional materials for ‘Helix’ appear on the side of buses that pass by his bookshop and on the bus he takes home to Notting Hill having discovered Anna’s boyfriend at the Ritz, and pictures of Anna are splashed across the newspapers.

<7> Public space in Notting Hill is threatening, and the film contrasts these spaces with the comforting, private world of William Thacker. His friend Tony is an unsuccessful restaurateur, but rather than bemoaning this failure it provides William and his friends with a private place to dine out, a place from which the public is excluded. Tony’s catering career continues as he provides the cake for William and Anna’s wedding at the end of the film, suggesting that success can be achieved within the close-knit community of one’s friends and family. William’s home is a refuge from the outside world, and becomes so for Anna as she hides from the British press. Rehearsing her upcoming role on the roof Anna is free from the need to present an image of perfect stardom, and is allowed to make errors, just as at the private dinner at Max’s she is allowed to admit her doubts and frailties, albeit in a context of fun. His front door is a barrier that separates the peace and tranquillity of his homelife from the raucous chaos of the hordes of photographers and journalists on the street, and the closing of the door divides public and private space sonically in a manner that was not possible in the public restaurant.

<8> In contrast to the transitory world of global celebrity Anna inhabits, Notting Hill is represented as a village. Though it is a part of London, William describes Notting Hill as ‘a village in the middle of the city,’ and in representing its private, walled gardens as wide open spaces the film conveys the image of a rural idyll. The high angle shot at the end of the scene in which William and Anna climb into a garden gives the impression of an expanse of green, English countryside, and the wall that surrounds the garden cuts this space off from urban London. This rural quality is attributed to William when he arrives at the Ritz to meet with Anna only to be mistaken for a journalist for Horse and Hound. Though this is played for laughs, it is a persona that suits William well: he demonstrates no knowledge of the modern world of the cinema, an art form that is typically associated with urbanisation, and mistakes Leonardo Da Vinci for Leonardo Di Caprio, and assumes that the latter is an Italian director.

<9> This emphasis on the rural and the use of the village as a metaphor marks a distinction in scale between the global and the local. Mazierska and Rascaroli note that, ‘Notting Hill is unlike a typical modern metropolis because there is no room there for global capital and multinational ventures. The entrepreneurship is on a modest, local scale: fruit stalls, restaurants, bookshops, and “not so genuine” antique dealers’ (177). This sense of the local is reinforced by the absence of cars, with William being able to walk around Notting Hill with ease, and the fact that William’s close friends and family have all ended up in the same part of the capital removing the need for leaving the area. Even though the film is set in the middle of the metropolis, it thus presents an image of a tightly knit face-to-face community.

<10> Transport only becomes an issue when leaving Notting Hill. Having discovered Anna’s boyfriend has arrived in London, William leaves the Ritz and boards a bus. Typically, the Routemaster bus is employed in films to symbolise Britishness. However, in Notting Hill this is not the case: the bus featured is not an instantly recognisable Routemaster but something more modern; and as the bus pulls away an advert for Anna’s latest film is revealed to cover the bus’s rear, suggesting that the London bus has lost its symbolic potency for the British and has been subsumed by a globalised media. Racing to the hotel in Max’s car to catch Anna before she leaves London, the characters argue over the best route, and the high level of traffic and one-way systems in central London forces them to make dangerous turns against the traffic and, in one case, to physically obstruct traffic. The urban environment of central London is thus much more confusing and hostile than the simple rural pleasures of Notting Hill.

<11> Such excursions are rare and if movement marks Anna’s world, William’s is marked by stasis. Though he owns a travel bookshop, William never goes anywhere. The bookshop struggles to make money suggesting that there is little demand for travel books in Notting Hill, and one annoying customer seems genuinely bemused that William sells only travel books and not the latest John Grisham or Winnie the Pooh. Significantly, the only person we see purchasing a book from William is Anna, a global and mobile celebrity. His family and friends all live in Notting Hill, so he has no need travel beyond the confines of this ‘humble village.’ This is shown in a single tracking shot of William walking through the market place thinking about Anna whilst the seasons change, implying that William has not left the confines of Notting Hill. The use of a single shot through the market gives a coherence to the space that is represented, and also suggests a self-sufficiency to Notting Hill that is capable of excluding the outside world. Notting Hill represents this stasis as being preferable to movement: the bench in the private garden is a memorial, and it is this bench that William and the now-pregnant Anna retreat to as a couple as she gives up her globe-trotting lifestyle. The romantic narrative of the film is thus completed with Anna’s decision to remain in London indefinitely.

South West 9

<12> South West 9 presents a very different experience of London to Notting Hill, and explicitly rejects Richard Curtis’ ‘posh’ version of the capital: early on the narrator, Freddy, pointedly remarks of Brixton that ‘Notting Hill it ain’t.’ However, the film does trade on the same oppositions of the global and the local, public and private spaces, the urban and the rural, and movement and stasis.

<13> South West 9 follows the lives of a group of characters in Brixton across a single day. Jake and Mitch are scamming their way out of trouble with the local gangster, Douser, by setting up a night-club; Kat, a trustafarian who divides her time between a squat and suburban home, also scams her way through life, and this brings her into contact with Helen, a merchant banker out to bring down her employers. Guiding us through this world is Freddy, a drug courier and part-time bouncer. Formally and stylistically, South West 9 demonstrates many of the features that have been identified as being particular to the British cinema: the episodic structure, the multiple and interweaving narrative lines, the extensive use of location shooting, and an exhibitionist use of space (Higson 276). The episodic structure of the multiple narrative strands promotes interaction between the characters, and where Notting Hill favours the private space of the romantic hero (i.e., William) that is typically associated with Hollywood cinema, South West 9 favours open public spaces. Like Notting Hill, South West 9 rejects the world of global capitalism and multinational corporations. The global is associated with international capitalism and the destruction of communities. Helen works for CSW International, a merchant bank that has been forging end user certificates arms deals so that weapons may be sold on to the war in Sierra Leone. The film stages footage of activists protesting CSW, and mixes actual documentary footage of combat in Africa with these dramatised sequences, shows how localities are linked across the globe and that capitalism on a global scale is unethical. Helen’s decision to introduce a virus into the bank’s computer system is an ethical decision to act in her own locality, which maintains the links between different parts of the world but rejects the global domination of localities. The anarchists who inhabit the squat are gearing up for a ‘Reclaim the Streets’ march in the city of London, and it is the case that even in England it is necessary to free localities from globalism. The film combines animated sequences of a baby with a Mohawk stomping on office buildings with documentary footage shot by the director, the documentary cameraman Richard Parry, of the 1999 Mayday protests in London. The use of these documentary images, staged protests, and animation alongside the film’s fictional narrative means that South West 9 is formally a hybrid, and this reflects the hybrid community that inhabits Brixton.

<14> Though the film attacks capitalism at the global scale, it shares with Notting Hill a preference for entrepreneurship at a more modest, local scale. Jake is a former city trader who, unable to cope with the pressures of business in the city, has come to Brixton to scam his way to a fortune through setting up club nights within the community and to deal drugs on the side. His business is specifically located to SW9: Helen phones Jake to arrange a meeting but he refuses to leave Brixton, telling her that ‘Herne Hill’s not on my radar. You know I never go anywhere I can’t walk.’ All the characters walk around Brixton; with Kat walking between her home and the squat, and Freddy’s distribution service operates on foot. Public transport appears infrequently in the film, but when we do see it bypasses Brixton completely, with several shots of trains passing above the streets of SW9, giving the area a sense of isolation. Identity is also tied to the location, and the characters are introduced to us as possessing strong relationships with particular areas: Jake and Mitch are Essex boy scammers, Helen is ‘Brixton born and bred,’ Douser is ‘south London to the bone,’ while Freddy refers to Brixton as ‘my manor.’ As the use of ‘Essex boy’ and ‘South London’ indicate the isolation of Brixton does not exclude people coming into the area from outside. Rather it is a feeling of alienation that is derived from a belief that Brixton has been marginalised from without. In the case of Douser, the preference for Brixton is also linked to his rejection of his ‘nationalist roots,’ and in embracing the multicultural community of Brixton Douser embraces a community at a new territorial scale.

<15> The film is shot entirely on location and takes pleasure in showing these public spaces. From a satellite image of Brixton that establishes the location of the action, we close in on a park and we follow Freddy as he walks through Brixton stopping to talk with a group of people having a barbecue. Unlike William’s walk through the market of Notting Hill where he is oblivious to those around him, Freddy, Jake, and Mitch interact with the other residents of Brixton. For example, rather than being divided into their own personal private spaces or attempting to exclude the public, in the Dog Bar the main characters are united in a single space, and the film represents this via a pan of the multicultural customers in the bar, giving the space and the community it contains a coherence. The club night Jake organises at the local church represents an attempt to bring the community together. The church has been failing for years, with a congregation of only fifteen, and it is Jake’s ambition to bring to the church ‘the biggest congregation in years.’ The name of his club night –- ‘Faith’ –- may thus be taken to refer to the belief in a community in Brixton rather than belief in the supernatural. The public spaces of Brixton are also urban spaces. South West 9 rejects the gentrification of London that makes Notting Hill into a ‘village in the middle of the city,’ and outside the squat a sign is hung reading ‘Stop the gentrification of Brixton.’ This is a multicultural space, and one shot shows a mural of a utopian image of Brixton, with the happy smiling faces of the areas white and black population. Charlotte Brundson writes that there ‘are no black people in Notting Hill because it’s actually a film about private bourgeois space’ (45), and as Freddy’s narration makes clear, it is this image of London that South West 9 rejects.

<16> In South West 9 it is private space that is threatening. Behind the respectable facade of a suburban home we find a drug laboratory producing powerful strains of LSD and marijuana, and it is here that Mitch absorbs a massive dose of LSD. The threatening nature of private space is best illustrated by the Smoke House, an old and decaying building that has been taken over by a drug dealer, and is home to a number of addicts. We enter the Smoke House through a window, moving from the bright sunshine of the public spaces to the darkness of the crack house. Private spaces in South West 9 are places of madness. Sonny, an Oxford graduate who ‘cracked’ under the pressure, sits in his room with his thoughts written on the walls. In a utopian moment the camera reveals a single piece of graffiti that reads ‘Life Without Buildings,’ but this dream cannot be realised where addiction and insanity cut characters off from the rest of Brixton. Private spaces are also associated with the hidden and the unrepresentable. Kat leads a double life, moving between the squat and the suburban home of her mother, and at the close of the film we learn that the latter is where she hides her baby. At the collect house we do not see the woman behind the grill. In the Smoke House we do not see into Jel’s room, though we do see glimpses of a body tied to a frame. Freddy looks into this room but the film does not match this point-of-view shot, as the horror of this space cannot be represented.

<17> Though their lives are confined to Brixton, within this space the characters are highly mobile. Rarely is anyone stationary for long periods of time, and the culture of SW9 is founded on this mobility. The entrepreneurial lifestyle of the scammers is dependent on this mobility: Freddy offers a delivery service to local drug dealers, while Jake and Mitch criss-cross the area making deals and meeting contacts. Kat’s dual life style is predicated on her ability to move between the squat and her mother’s middle class home. This mobility is specifically associated with walking. Cars are associated with the drug dealer Jel, who hides behind his blacked out windows smoking marijuana linking this car with the private spaces of addiction and madness. Cars are also associated with the breakdown of the community and the film juxtaposes a news story of a ‘Reclaim the Streets’ march with Rafaela playing a computer game in which she destroys cars. The film also contains a number of shots of trains that pass through the frame oblivious to the world outside. The highly mobile lifestyle of South West 9 is echoed in the film’s use of stylistic markers to represent social space. The use of long takes, tracking shots, and pans gives a coherence and unity to Brixton. For example, there are a large number of shots that show people simply walking around Brixton. One sequence, for example, shows Freddy making a delivery and is constructed of six shots that follow him from the collect house to the Smoke House. The use of a pan to show the Dog Bar as a single space also creates the impression of a unified space that is inhabited by all the major characters of the film. This coherent space is home to a diverse community of anarchist squatters, Essex scammers, middle-class trustafarians, black city girls, and white Rasta men, and as such it also a hybrid space that challenges the homogeneity of Notting Hill. In emphasising that ‘Notting Hill it ain’t,’ Freddy draws attention to the charges laid at the door of Curtis’ film that it elided that part of London’s multicultural history. South West 9 does not ignore this history, and uses documentary footage of West Indian immigrants and the 1981 Brixton riots to make the viewer aware of this history. As it is represented by South West 9, Brixton may thus be described as a unified space that is home to a hybridised community, and may be read, (in the context of a hybrid British cinema) syndochicaly, to represent the United Kingdom.

<18> In contrast to this mobility, stasis is represented as something that is associated with addiction and madness, and as such is something to be feared. Mitch, for example, absorbs a massive dose of LSD, and as the drug takes effect he loses his mobility. We first notice this when he stops dead walking down the street, and arriving at the Smoke House he joins the other addicts in sitting and waiting. By the end of the film he has lost his capacity for movement altogether and simply sits by the side of the road. He describes this experience as being ‘lost,’ implying that a further symptom of this drug-induced madness is a loss of awareness of social space.

Works Cited

Brundson Charlotte. “London Films: From Private Gardens to Utopian Moments.” Cineaste 26.4 (2001): 43-46.

Higson, Andrew. Waving the Flag: Constructing a National Cinema in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

James, Nick. “Farewell to Napoli.” Sight and Sound 9.5 (1999): 20-22.

Konstantarakos, Myrto. “Introduction.” Spaces in European Cinema. Ed. Myrto Konstantarakos. Exeter: Intellect, 2000. 1-7.

Mazierska, Ewa, and Laura Rascaroli. From Moscow to Madrid: Postmodern Cities, European Cinema. London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2003.

Redfern, Nick. “Space and Hybridity in Contemporary British Cinema.” International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics 2.1 (2006): 97-103.