The 100 best British films
Time Out counts down the best British films, as chosen by the film industry
By Dave Calhoun, Tom Huddleston and David Jenkins, with Derek Adams, Geoff Andrew, Adam Lee Davies, Gareth Evans, Paul Fairclough and Wally Hammond. Explore the individual top tens of every contributor.
Don't Look Now (1973)
Dir Nicolas Roeg (Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland)
Nothing is what it seems
So, the number one film on our list is…
…Nicolas Roeg’s hallucinatory 1973 Daphne du Maurier adaptation – the story of a couple, played by Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, who decamp to a spooky Venice after the death by drowning of their daughter. We can speculate on the roots of its popularity: that it satisfies the genre and arthouse crowds; that it uses framing, sound, editing and camera movement to unreel a transfixing tale and flesh out excruciatingly authentic characters; that it dares to coax out the ghosts lurking in every watery passageway in Venice, Europe’s most ornate and singular city; that it contains arguably the greatest sex scene on film. Or, we can just accept it as a movie whose every glorious frame is bursting with meaning, emotion and mystery, and which stands as the crowning achievement of one of Britain’s true iconoclasts and masters of cinema. DJ
Time Out’s David Jenkins spoke to ‘Don’t Look Now’ director Nicolas Roeg about making his 1973 film.
Congratulations on being voted number one in our British cinema poll.
‘Well, it’s all very exciting indeed.’
Do you recall the last time you saw ‘Don’t Look Now’?
‘Golly, it was some time ago. I’ve seen clips and I’ve introduced it at festivals. It’s interesting seeing it in clips, as it gives you these hints that remind you where you were going at that time. Funnily enough, I don’t like watching a movie I’ve finished. It’s difficult because the film was part of your life.’
Was the experience of making ‘Don’t Look Now’ a positive one?
‘Film is a curious thing: you’re preparing, working on and thinking about it for a long time before you shoot anything. Suddenly you give birth to this piece.
‘Making films is like being a jockey. After the race, interviews with jockeys are very interesting. One interview stuck in my mind – and I’m aware it sounds a little mad making the connection between moviemaking and horseracing – when they said to a jockey, “You were lying third: did you know you were going to come through?” Then he says, “I was third, but I wanted to hold him back until he wanted to go.” The horse is the one who’s directing the jockey. It’s the same relationship between film and director. Sounds a bit airy-fairy, but it’s true!’
How did you know Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie were right for the main roles?
‘This movie was about two people discussing who they were and what they did. I really like the fact that it was an American man – Donald – with a British woman – Julie. It was a pure, physical and mental exchange, not because of background or nationality. For me, “Don’t Look Now” is about expressing love in a different way.’
The infamous sex scene in the film: some people see it as this moment of pure bliss, others read it as a outburst of anguish.
‘Sex, whether you like it or not, is the prime force of life. There is no other reason to be here. For me, sex is very rarely rude. It’s a fresh thing. The censors saw things that didn’t happen in the sex scene. Did this happen? Did that happen? It’s not unusual. The wonder of film is that because we relate to moments and emotions so deeply, we often see things that aren’t there.
‘I think people secretly connected to “Don’t Look Now” for that reason. Maybe that’s why after all this time when it’s looked at, people see that more clearly. When it came out, audiences were less used to it. Back then, I imagine that scene would’ve been like someone bursting out of a cupboard and shouting “Boo!”.’
You made ‘Don’t Look Now’ in Venice and you shot a lot of your other films abroad. What’s the appeal for you in making films in strange lands?
‘I like being a stranger in a strange land. We don’t go to all the sites in London, because they’re there and we can always go to them tomorrow. I like that things stand out making the decision of whether to show the tour guide’s view of another city.
‘In “Don’t Look Now”, Donald Sutherland is a church restorer and he’s working there, so there’d be no reason that we’d need to see any tourist landmarks. It’s very difficult for me to see London in the way that a stranger sees it. Stories seem to stand out more when you’re shooting them in a place you don’t know, especially Venice.
‘I don’t think I’ve been to another city where you can walk down a narrow street and you can hear footsteps getting louder and louder. It’s like someone’s always behind you. The maze of those alleyways was a fantastic thing for me, but Venetians don’t notice it.’
Are there any other films in the top 100 you’re fond of?
‘If I started making selections I’d only upset someone! But I think it’s a fine list, and I don’t see any film on it that doesn’t deserve to be there.’