Hidden City review – Stephen Poliakoff’s convoluted 1980s mystery told with flair

Hidden City review – Stephen Poliakoff’s convoluted 1980s mystery told with flair

There is great archival and historical interest to the 1987 feature film debut of writer-director Stephen Poliakoff, which now on re-release. It is a peculiar, cerebral and often strangely toothless mystery drama with some pretty wooden acting, but also some fascinating, secret London locations, used with flair. These include the Kingsway tram tunnel – gateway to a veritable catacomb of secret spaces under the city – and the gigantic Edmonton incinerator (now the Edmonton EcoPark). Hidden City offers points of interest in its drama; chiefly, the assertive and characteristically haughty performance from Charles Dance as an educational psychologist who stumbles on an occult conspiracy. Dance incidentally has the most outrageously handbags-at-dawn fight with Bill Paterson (“Mind the suit!”) – an un-macho showdown to be compared with Hugh Grant scrapping with Colin Firth in Bridget Jones’s Diary.

Dance plays James Richards, an academic who while showing a film to a class of schoolkids in a lecture theatre with video monitors at every desk, is annoyed to see the wrong footage is being shown. In an imperious fit of pique, he demands that the archive fire whoever is responsible, who turns out to be mouthy researcher Sharon (Cassie Stuart). She tracks Richards down and demands that he help her solve a sinister puzzle: she has turned up surveillance footage of what appears to be a woman being kidnapped in the street by government agents.

From this premise a long, involved and somewhat somnolent story unwinds, on the edge of Orwellian paranoia but on the edge also of a fantasy world of near-nonsense. It’s obviously influenced by Antonioni’s Blow-Up, not merely in the sinister details semi-concealed in the footage, but the use of London parks and freaky parties. Hidden City also recognisably comes from the same world as Peter Greenaway and Dennis Potter – the kind of uppermiddlebrow-concept Britfilm that in those days made the commercially minded Alan Parker growl with rage.

I have to admit that, from the first moment to the last, when we are presumably supposed to be on the edge of our seats as the conspiracy is disclosed, there is for me always something slightly unexciting about it all. But Hidden City has a distinct sense of humour, made with authorial confidence and style.

Source: theguardian.com