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Hidden City (1987)

Courtesy of Channel Four Television

Main image of Hidden City (1987)
35mm, 108 minutes, colour
DirectorStephen Poliakoff
Production CompanyHidden City Films
 Film Four Intn'l
ProducerIrving Teitelbaum
ScriptStephen Poliakoff
PhotographyWitold Stok

Cast: James Richards (Charles Dance); Sharon Newton (Cassie Stuart); Anthony (Bill Paterson); Brewster (Richard E. Grant); Hillcombe (Alex Norton)

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James Richards, statistician and writer, becomes involved with a girl at a video library. She is obsessed with finding a mysterious piece of film that has been hidden in a 1940s Government information film.

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Hidden City is an impressively professional piece of work for a debut director. With a decade of television experience as a writer behind him, Stephen Poliakoff has clearly learnt well from directors like Stephen Frears and Michael Apted, and draws excellent work from his actors. Charles Dance has rarely been better, giving a witty, commanding performance, and he combines well with Cassie Stuart as the annoying, pushy Sharon. Most striking, however, is the visual flair of the film, which offers up a convincing vision of a secret London while pushing the narrative into the background. Like Michelangelo Antonioni in Blow-Up (1966), Poliakoff is more interested in the trappings of conspiracy than in the conspiracy itself.

Indeed, the film is heavily influenced by Blow-Up, not only in its conspiracy plot but also in its portrayal of London as an almost foreign country. Poliakoff and his cinematographer, Witold Stok, create an extraordinarily potent portrait of an unknown world beneath the streaming metropolis which is, as Sharon says, "so drowning in secrets that no-one knows which the important ones are anymore". The locations are brilliantly chosen, and refreshingly unfamiliar - an ancient piece of the London Underground, a vast subterranean chamber under Oxford Street, the desolation of a huge landfill site. Poliakoff's next film, Close My Eyes (1991), used Docklands in a similar manner. Another obvious influence on the look of the film is Charles Sturridge's bleak filming of Poliakoff's screenplay for Runners (1983).

Hidden City sees the emergence of a key theme of Poliakoff's later work: our relationship with the past as revealed in film, photographs and assorted items of ephemera. The idea that history can be discarded but never completely lost is vividly illustrated here, as is the notion of reconstructing a 'secret history' from items thought to have been destroyed. This theme is developed further in Shooting The Past (BBC, 1999) and Perfect Strangers (BBC, 2001), where photographs of the past are central to the narrative. The obsession with the past means that Hidden City hasn't dated as badly as some films of the mid-1980s, the main reminder of its era being the evocative electronic score by Michael Storey.

Mike Sutton

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Video Clips
1. James meets Sharon (2:41)
2. Recovered evidence (4:04)
3. The Hedgerows of England (5:18)
Dance, Charles (1946-)
Grant, Richard E. (1957-)
Poliakoff, Stephen (1952-)
Channel 4 and Film