Review: Underground

Arjun Sajip 16 January 2013

The London Underground is 150 years old this year. When I was informed of the BFI’s screening of a recently-restored silent film by the name of Underground (1928), I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Perhaps a quaint, British comedy-of-manners in which people exchanged awkward glances across Tube carriages. Maybe even some sort of serious documentary demonstrating the importance of the Underground in the quotidian lives of Londoners. I certainly wasn’t expecting a thrilling tale of love, obsession, deceit and murder worthy of Hitchcock himself. But that’s what I got.

Probably the most surprising thing about the 85-year-old film (gloriously restored with the help of Simon W. Hessel), apart from how well it has dated, is the unpredictable character arcs. We begin by seeing a friendly young man named Bert innocently but fruitlessly flirt with Nell, a coy lady, on the Tube, surrounded by a gallery of charming minor characters. In 99 percent of romances, the couple we see at the beginning of the film – however much one lover’s affections seem unrequited – end up by being together, or if they don’t, the demise of their relationship is bathed in fatalistic, romantic tragedy. Not so in Underground. We are soon introduced to Bill, a handsome and friendly escalator attendant, and Kate, Bert’s neighbour; thus begins a love-square (or perhaps, given the film’s constantly-shifting compass of sympathies, a love-rhombus) of tragic proportions. Bert’s character development is so unexpected, so moving, and so well-handled that I will not ruin it for you here. Go and see it for yourself.

Music plays a huge role in silent films, and Neil Brand’s wonderful score was recorded live at the Barbican by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in October 2011. Diverse scenes of bus-rides, picnics and frantic rooftop chases receive truly sympathetic musical accompaniment, with whistling woodwind sounds gliding over soothing strings. Not a second of the film’s 94-minute running time is wasted, and Anthony Asquith (who, according to film archive curator Bryony Dixon, was “one of the few in the British industry to match the audacity of Hitchcock”) orchestrates tender love scenes and harsh betrayals with equal sensitivity. For its music and direction alone, this is a film you have to see.

This film will be important as long as London has a subterranean transport network. I mentioned earlier that it is surprising how well the film has dated; indeed, the Underground looks much the same today as it did in 1928, with some interesting differences (the escalators seemed more like moving walkways at a steeper gradient). I was thrilled to see Watford, my hometown, as the destination of one of the trains, and even more thrilled to see that the train had a great bit-part (it nearly killed someone). Situating an utterly believable (but tense and layered) plot in a world that will induce in most of us pangs of both familiarity and nostalgia was a stroke of genius, and will make the film evergreen: a first-degree thriller, and an invaluable document of what London’s public transport system was like in the 1920s.

Until 24 January at the BFI Southbank

Arjun Sajip