Review: London: The Modern Babylon

(Julien Temple, 2012)
(Originally posted at CineVue)

Arriving just as the British capital revels in the wake of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, Julien Temple’s masterfully expansive and incredibly dense London: The Modern Babylon is perhaps the celebrated filmmaker’s defining magnum opus, a documentary that laboriously studies, contextualises and essays the boundless national dexterity of London and its stance as a city defined by its plurality and vibrant multiculturalism. Taking as its framework its past and present, the film tells the story of London’s epic journey through 100 years of cultural highs and damaging lows as the city bounds from upheaval and societal unrest to reinvention, constantly renewing itself to remain a universally acknowledged hub of diverse civilisation that always comes out on top. As one faceless commentator deftly puts it, ‘You could call it the capital of the world’.

Exceptionally edited together by Caroline Richards, who pools together an exhaustively researched plethora of visual fragments ranging from newsreels, television documentaries, CCTV recordings and commercials (and a variety of other sources) and winds them into a dizzyingly adroit bow, Temple’s film is a remarkable feat of technical ingenuity and intellectual perceptiveness that exemplifies the director’s clear fascinations with this multifaceted location. Although working under a 128-minute runtime, Temple makes a remarkable effort in covering as much ground whilst bridging the gap between the aged Victorian era (with clips borrowed from Harry B. Parkinson and Frank Miller’s Wonderful London series, newly restored by the BFI) and more recent events such as the riots that besieged the city in August 2011 and the Olympic Games it so gloriously hosted this summer, though he and his team make room for elements Danny Boyle’s opening-night extravaganza had little room for.

So as to not be seen as a documentary starting at an arbitrary point in time, Temple begins the film deep into the 1890s and, of course, the birth of cinema itself, working upwards in a broadly chronological way and utilising film clips and imagery to underscore the thoughts and messages he is attempting to depict. This is, therefore, as much a history of London as that of the moving image due to the expanse of material Temple uses to the film’s advantage – from 35mm footage to VHS and Mini DV to HD and digital footage – which all offer insight and prescient commentary for the specific moment in time. The Long Good Friday (1980) is used to pinpoint growing racial prejudice, for example. Along with the music that soundtracks the film throughout, the representation of each format both evokes the period and foregrounds London’s gradual explosion into vibrant multinational colour.

Throughout each historical event, from the devastations brought about by two World Wars (along with its raunchy underbelly), the 1936 Battle of Cable Street, the birth of counter-cultural bohemian lifestyles and the lure of “Soho-itis”, looming threats of homelessness and what Michael Caine believes is a total lack of moral fibre in the 60s due to the loss of the once exclusive British Empire – and, of course, a plethora of other historic turning points, London: The Modern Babylon essentially remains a heart-warming and hopeful film. Though it ends by detailing the level of need that fuelled the 2011 riots and the punishing current economical climate, what is highlighted is how, once the floodgates of immigration finally opened, London moved on from its all-white origins into what it is now known for: a metropolis whose ethnic diversity  is seen as the lifeboat of the city and the country at large. If London is seen as the gateway to the world, then Julien Temple’s marvellous compendium does a sterling job of commemorating it as a timeless city.

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