Hidden City (1987) – Film Review

Hidden City

Director: Stephen Poliakoff
Cast: Charles Dance, Cassie Stuart, Bill Paterson
Certificate: 15

By Sarah Morgan

TV is full of amazingly talented British writers. Sally Wainwright, Jesse Armstrong, Abi Morgan, Charlie Brooker, Russell T Davies and Jeff Pope are just a few of them.

But there’s another who perhaps overshadows them all – Stephen Poliakoff. He’s certainly been around longer, and everything he does has critics in a swoon. Whether his work is as popular with the masses is a moot point, however. I must admit that in recent years, I’ve felt his projects have been well-made but rather dull.

Hidden City

“Pompous statistician”

Still, I was more than willing to take a look at one of Poliakoff’s earlier productions, particularly as it was originally made for the cinema rather than TV, and has largely vanished since being shown in Channel 4’s Film on Four strand back in 1989.

Charles Dance, then at his most dashing, takes the lead role of James Richards, a somewhat pompous statistician. He arranges for researcher Sharon Newton to be sacked after she makes a mistake, but that only brings her into his life – she thinks she’s spotted a kidnapping while viewing a long-forgotten reel of film, and demands that he take a look.

The problem is, the reel has now gone missing, so the pair embark on a search across London, during which they explore the city’s hidden subterranean areas (hence the title), places seemingly ignored or not known about by the general public. Along the way they encounter a variety of weird characters, their once antagonistic relationship developing into something verging on friendship.

Hidden City marked Poliakoff’s debut as a director, and he handles his own material well, albeit in an unflashy way. But there are problems with the film – Dance is the consummate professional, but some of the performances around him (from such seasoned actors as Richard E Grant and Bill Paterson) are rather too large, while Cassie Stuart, who plays Sharon, is simply annoying; she does not seem capable of handling the material in a believable manner. Apparently, she retired from acting in 1998, so perhaps she realised her limitations.

Hidden City

“Wickedly funny”

The soundtrack, written by Michael Storey, is so ridiculously 1980s in style it’s almost laughable, while the scenes supposedly shot in the 1940s are unconvincing – they look as if they were made the day before on an adjoining set (which is entirely possible).

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the film more than I expected to; it is wickedly funny in places, and as a big fan of London, I found the idea of disused underground stations and other places being used to store clandestine documents and archives rather fascinating. I recognised a few places too, including Leadenhall Market; I think some crucial scenes were shot at the Midland Hotel at St Pancras Station, before its restoration, too.

Has Hidden City turned me into a Poliakoff fan? Not quite, but I may be more open to viewing his earlier stuff in the future.

Special features include an audio commentary with the writer-director, as well as various items from the BFI National Archive that have links, albeit tenuous, to the film’s subject matter.

Special features:
  • Presented in High Definition
  • Newly recorded audio commentary with writer and director Stephen Poliakoff and film critic Michael Brooke
  • Treasures from the BFI National Archive (1903-1947, 58 mins): a selection of archive gems, exploring some of the themes featured in Hidden City. The films: Cheese Mites (1903), Barging Through London (1924), Hop Gardens of Kent (1933), The City (1939) and Shown by Request (1947)
  • Inside the BFI National Archive (2023, 1 min): a behind-the-scenes look at the work of the BFI National Archive
  • First pressing only Illustrated booklet including Poliakoff's original introduction to his screenplay, a new essay on the film by John Wyver, a new interview with Stephen Poliakoff by Michael Brooke, new writing on Barging Through London and Hop Gardens of Kent by Ellen Cheshire and an essay on Public Information films and the National Archives by Sarah Castagnetti and Patrick Russell
Hidden City is released on Blu-ray by the BFI

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