10 Films to Watch Before Visiting Edinburgh

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Picture of Tori Chalmers
Updated: 9 May 2017
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From cult classics like Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, which submits the viewer to the horrific effects of heroin and drug abuse, to gorgeous animated artworks like Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist, we take a look at Edinburgh through the lens.

Trainspotting (1996)

Instead of ‘sitting on that couch watching mind numbing, spirit crushing game shows and chucking junk food into your mouth’, watch Trainspotting — Danny Boyle’s cult classic. Although highly disturbing and unnerving at times, this Academy Award nominated film is a work of art and a playground for Ewan McGregor to truly flex his acting muscles. Based on the novel by Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting offers a shockingly raw snippet of the late 1980s heroin scene in an economically depressed part of Edinburgh. The city is presented in a raw light and is devoid of beauty. This enthralling cinematic piece continues to be dissected and discussed by film critics and is considered number ten in the British Film Institute’s Top 100 British Films Of All Time.

The Illusionist (2010)

Every film snob should be familiar with The Illusionist. A hand drawn piece of cinema by Sylvain Chomet, this film is an exquisite French-Scottish animated comedy-drama. Based on the unproduced script by French mime, actor and director Jacques Tati in 1956, this masterpiece follows an endearing French illusionist who stumbles across a new friend in Scotland. Although the few words uttered throughout are in Gaelic, The Illusionist is written in a relatable way that forces viewers to turn on the waterworks. Edinburgh and Scotland are represented from a fresh perspective with the intricate and vibrant animations painting an enchanting picture. The film, which is set in 1959, opened the 2010 Edinburgh International Film Festival.

One Day (2011)

Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess present themselves as mismatched soulmates who meet as students at the University of Edinburgh. One Day takes viewers on a journey of two friends, who each year, celebrate the anniversary of when they first met. Themes of love, time, friendship and values are apparent. Although this film adaptation from the book by David Nichollsby did not receive stellar reviews in the slightest, it still unearths a flurry of emotions. The film opens and ends with Edinburgh. Arthur’s Seat, Calton Hill, Victoria Street and Parliament Square make for a bonnie backdrop throughout.

The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)

The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie is a coming of age classic. The moment the title is mentioned, the snippety sing-songy Morningside accent of Miss Brodie resonates at the forefront of the mind. Muriel Spark’s well-loved novel has become immortalized in the 1969 film adaptation starring the ever so talented Maggie Smith. Miss Brodie, a private school teacher in 1930s Edinburgh, never fails to influence impressionable students with her overtly romanticized views and opinions of life. From Cramond to the Grassmarket and Greyfriar’s Churchyard, this notable film will forever live on in the streets of this city.

Shallow Grave (1994)

Danny Boyle permanently positions his viewers on the edge of their seats. Shallow Grave is an invigorating crime film that marks the cinematic directorial debut of Boyle. A young Ewan McGregor costars with Christopher Eccleston and Kerry Fox, and they carry out bemusing interviews for a fourth flatmate. In true Boyle style, times get tough — and rough. After the fourth flatmate unexpectedly dies from an overdose, leaving nothing but a moral predicament and a suitcase stuffed with cash, the friends are faced with turmoil. Although most scenes were shot in Glasgow, this gritty film is set in Edinburgh and is another Boyle-esque dark representation of cultural and social occurrences in this Scottish city.

Filth (2013)

Filth is undeniably disgusting and couldn’t be more perfectly named. Witness Scottish sensation James McAvoy (in arguably one of his most arousing performances yet), as he plays a drug-riddled policeman with borderline personality disorder. Straight from the mind of Irvine Welsh in his novel of the same name and directed by Jon S. Baird, Filth is as shocking, provocative, corrupt and delightfully demonic as films come. Follow Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson as he manipulates, bribes and over indulges while trying to win back his family. See the cobbled streets of Edinburgh (most of the film was shot on location) in a macabre light and witness gritty portrayals of the sex industry, drug abuse, family crises and exploitation.

Hallam Foe (2007)

Hallam Foe (or Mister Foe in the United States) is a British drama directed by David Mackenzie. This quintessential art house film is as quirky as it is thought provoking. Hallam, a weirdly disturbing teenage outcast and oddball with voyeuristic tendencies, resides on his father’s grand estate near Peebles on the outskirts of Edinburgh. His natural knack for spying exposes a grueling secret surrounding the accidental death of his mother. Hallam escapes the eerie goings-on and ventures to Edinburgh where he scours the city in the hopes of true love. Filming locations include the swanky Balmoral Hotel, Caledonian and Cockburn Street, to name a few.

Regeneration (1997)

Regeneration (or Behind The Lines in the United States) is a wartime film directed by Gillies Mackinnon and is based on the novel by Pat Barker. During World War I and from the confines of Scottish mental institution Craiglockhart War Hospital, the captivating stories of wounded British officers begin to unravel. Amidst serious mental contemplations, narratives evolve from some of Britain’s most prominent poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon (alongside the other characters). The doctor, played by Jonathan Pryce, shows the therapeutic effects of poetry. Overtoun House in Dumbarton was the filming location for Craiglockhart Hospital, which is now part of Edinburgh Napier University.

The Body Snatcher (1945)

Horror engulfs Edinburgh in The Body Snatcher, a 1945 film adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story. Directed by Robert Wise, this was the last film ever to feature Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Suspense is rife and the sound effects are startling as a tale of murder, deception and benevolence unfolds. Several appearances of notorious duo Burke and Hare are made throughout the film while the city of Edinburgh is shrouded in darkness. Producer, Val Lewton, wrote the adapted version under the pen name of Carlos Keith.

Burke And Hare (2010)

The grim story of the Burke and Hare murders will haunt Edinburgh for all of eternity. So that this tale will forever be imprinted into the mind, countless retellings about the murderous duo have been released. How could they not? In 1828, 16 victims were murdered and the cadavers were sold for dissection during a ten-month period. The most recent rendering of the murders is the 2010 satirical film Burk and Hare by John Landis. Although the film was a flop, Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Isla Fisher, and Tom Wilkinson provide a hefty amount of laughs.

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