London: a plot catalyst in Closer (2004)

Closer (2004) official trailer. Courtesy YouTube.

London frequently plays a major role in film. From Victorian era Dickensian dramas to many a James Bond film, the Bridget Jones franchise, Love Actually (2003) and the critically acclaimed romantic drama Sliding Doors (1998), London more than holds its own on camera oftentimes outshining the stars themselves. Closer (2004) is also one such film. While London’s presence as its locale is far more subtle than any of its contemporaries, it still plays a major role in the plot’s many twists and turns. London gives the film an additional dimension not afforded in its original format as a play, which was coincidentally rereleased at the Donmar Warehouse recently.

Closer, written by Patrick Marber and directed by Mike Nichols, stars Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman and Clive Owen as the only four actors in the film to have audible lines on-screen. The significance of the two female leads both being American in London, lends the women a way out of the story. They can escape, never to be heard from again, while the men are Londoners and not afforded the same luxury of walking away from their lives. London itself is not only the arbitrary city Closer is set, but it also proves itself a catalyst in propelling the story forward.

Film critic Roger Ebert pointed out that London as a backdrop serves as a manifestations of the contradictions the in couples’ relationships: “They move in that London tourists never quite see, the London of trendy restaurants on dodgy streets, and flats that are a compromise between affluence and the exorbitant price of housing.”

The beauty of the film lies in its simplicity and honest portrayal of heterosexual relationships in the digital age. “We have all heard ‘I promise I won’t be mad. I just want to know,’” said Closer director Mike Nichols to The Georgia Straight the week of the film’s release. “Anyone above the age of 11 knows that you don’t answer that question, because to answer the question is to slide into pain. My wife [broadcaster Diane Sawyer] says that one of the things that Closer is about is the importance of lying to a relationship. It is about the definition of closeness. Do you have the right to protect what is in your head? And I think the answer is ‘Yes, of course.’”

Closer’s Opening Scene. GIF courtesy of Giphy.

The film is about two couples’ relationships and how through a variety of crisscrossed love affairs with one another, the characters each come undone. Alice Ayres (Portman), an American stripper new to London, meets eyes with Dan Woolf (Law), an obituarist on a busy London street. A car hits her before they even exchange a word and Dan takes her to the ER for treatment. After being released with stiches, Alice is taken by Dan on a minor tour of London. Their banter is melodic and unforgettable.

Dan: A bus. Policeman, or bobby. Observe the distinctive helmet.
[Alice laughs]
Dan: St. Paul’s Cathedral. Please note the famous dome.
Alice: This is truly a magnificent tour.
Dan: It’s the London the tourists never get to see.
Alice: What’s this? [Motioning towards the gate of Postman’s Park]
Dan: I’ve no idea.
[They walk through the gate and look at a memorial wall.]
Alice: They’re all people who died saving the lives of others.

Postman’s Park

Alice Ayres (Natalie Portman) in Postman’s Park

The inclusion of Postman’s Park irreversibly spins the direction of the plot. Just off King Edward Street, the garden is adjacent to the former General Post Office’s headquarters and it was named after its most frequent visitors. One of the largest in the City of London, the park was opened in 1880. A quiet enclave surrounded by the City’s bustling streets, Postman’s Park is a quaint green space featuring meandering paths, dotted with benches. It feels almost surreal walking into this park for the first time having seen Closer umpteen times; I was stuck by how small the park actually is in reality. Surprisingly quiet for its central location, it is perhaps best known for its Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice. Proposed by artist George Frederic Watts, the memorial was created in honour of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee to commemorate those who scarified their own lives saving others. The memorial features dozens of ceramic tiles with the name and a brief description about how each hero passed away around the turn of the twentieth century.

When first opened in 1900, the memorial featured only four tiles. After Watts’ death in 1904, the project was taken over by his wife Mary Watts who saw the completion of 24 more tablets. She quickly lost interest in the project after she deemed the ceramic work by Royal Doulton not up to par. Work on the memorial became sporadic and stopped altogether in 1931 with only 53 of the 120 tiles in place.

Dan Woolf (Jude Law) and Alice Ayres in Postman’s Park. Photo Courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

Work on the memorial resumed almost a century later in 2009 when the Diocese of London added the first tablet in 78 years. Today an app with historical information is available for download outlining the now 54 tiles in the memorial. Titled The Everyday Heroes of Postman’s Park, the app interactively allows users to click on the tiles individually with an in-depth history of each incident. Postman’s Park makes a second crucial appearance in the film’s final scene.

Sea Life London Aquarium, South Bank

Larry (Clive Owen) and Anna Cameron (Julia Roberts) at the Sea Life London Aquarium. Courtesy Columbia Pictures.

After the first scene in Postman’s Park, a year lapses in the film. Dan is releasing his first book and he’s having his headshot done by Anna (Roberts) in her Shoreditch photography studio. They discuss his book, which is loosely based on Alice’s life:

Dan: Any criticisms?
Anna: I’m not sure about the title.
Dan: Got a better one?
Anna: The aquarium.
Dan: So you liked the filth. You like aquariums.
Anna: Fish are therapeutic.
Dan: Hang out in aquariums, do you?
Anna: When I can.
Dan: Good for picking up strangers.
Anna: Photographing strangers.

Although Dan has been in a live-in relationship with Alice for the past year, he falls in love with Anna immediately. He spends the following months stalking her and falsely representing her online in chat rooms. In one such room, he meets Larry the dermatologist (Owen) and directs him to meet “her” at the London Aquarium. Larry turns up at the aquarium only to meet the real Anna and they unceremoniously fall in love.

Officially called the Sea Life London Aquarium, the venue of this interaction is based on the ground floor of County Hall on the River Thames’ South Bank. Just off the London Eye, the Aquarium was opened in 1997 and sees up to one million visitors per year.

Anna and Larry at South Bank walking away the Aquarium. GIF courtesy of Giphy.

The largest aquarium in London, the space features an underwater tunnel for an immersive sea life experience, breeding programmes for the Cuban crocodiles, seahorses, butterfly goodeids and jellyfish. Bought out in 2008 by Merlin Entertainments, the London Aquarium is a must-see especially for tourists with children to the British capital and is included in a number of London sightseeing packages. Tickets start at £19.50.

Whiteleys, Bayswater

An odd choice for perhaps one of the most pivotal scenes in Closer, Whiteleys Bayswater is transformed into a gallery for Anna’s photo exhibition. Featuring elegant La Scala staircases, marble floors and a tiered atrium, the shopping center is a Grade II listed heritage building. The crown jewel of Bayswater, the shopping center is home to a number of high street stores, florists, a movie theater and even a bowling alley. In the film the bustle of the shopping mall is virtually edited out and the grandeur of the building takes over to complement banter about art:

Alice and Dr. Larry at Whiteleys for Anna Cameron’s Exhibit. GIF courtesy Giphy.
Larry: So what do you reckon, in general?
Alice: You want to talk about art?
Larry: I know it’s vulgar to discuss the work at the opening of the work, but somebody’s gotta do it. I’m serious. What do you think?
Alice: It’s a lie. It’s a bunch of sad strangers photographed beautifully, and all the glittering assholes who appreciate art say it’s beautiful ’cause that’s what they want to see. But the people in the photos are sad, and alone, but the pictures make the world seem beautiful. So the exhibition’s reassuring, which makes it a lie, and everyone loves a big fat lie.
Larry: I’m the big fat lie’s boyfriend.

The coming together of Dr. Larry and Alice is crucial as they have yet to meet. Every other character had interacted up until this point. The two couples are now permanently entangled in a web of unrequited lust and deceit. It’s a story that’s almost apt for the history of Whiteleys as an historical London edifice.

In 1845 a 24-year-old Yorkshire man named William Whiteley arrived in London. He had less than £10 to his name and a dream of starting a store where Londoners could purchase anything they could possibly desire. Over the course of 30 years he bought up shops in and around Bayswater that sold everything from clothing to home accessories to even property. By the turn of the century, Whiteley was running a retail empire that had a over 6,000 staff that worked six days a week from 7AM to 11PM. The business went public on the London Stock Exchange in 1899.

With its staggering success, Whiteleys soon experienced tragedy of equal proportion. In 1907 and elderly William Whiteley was confronted by a man claiming to be his illegitimate son. As opposed to it being a joyful reunion, the man murdered Whiteley in his own store. In an effort to keep his memory alive, Whiteley’s two legitimate sons came together to further their father’s dream.

Five years after Whiteley’s sudden death the Mayor of London opened the shopping centre Londoners know today as Whiteleys, spanning 500ft of the Queensway. Designed by architects John Belcher and J Joass, the building was set back 15ft from the main street to give the impressive structure its colonnade façade it’s now known for and seen in the film Closer. The building is almost too majestic to be a public shopping centre and is the perfect setting for a fictional art gallery.

Portrait Restaurant, The National Portrait Gallery, Trafalgar Square

Anna and Larry at Portrait Restaurant. Courtesy Columbia Pictures.

Perhaps one of the most striking scenes of the film takes place on the backdrop of the view from the National Portrait Gallery’s restaurant at Trafalgar Square. Aptly called Portrait, the restaurant’s USP is its breath-taking view of Nelson’s Column, the London Eye, Big Ben, Victoria Tower and beyond.

It is here Larry and Anna meet to finalise their divorce. Although only one scene after the gallery exhibition, a year has lapsed. Anna and Dan have maintained an affair throughout the year, dissolving her marriage with Larry.

Larry: I hate this place.
Anna: At least it’s central.
Larry: I hate central. Central London’s a theme park. I hate retro. I hate the future. Where does that leave me? Come back.
Anna: You promised you wouldn’t.
Larry: Come back.
Anna: How’s work?
Larry: Oh, Jesus. Work’s shit, okay? Do they have waiters here? I love you. Please, come back.
Anna: I’m not coming back.
Anna, Portrait Restaurant. Courtesy Columbia Pictures.

The view of London is so picturesque it just about eclipses the scene’s melodrama itself. There’s no doubt about it. The restaurant is impressive. The space is now newly renovated and features reupholstered walls. Just like in the scene, Portrait outshines whatever event you come to the eatery to celebrate. The ambiance is hollow and somewhat echo-y, with even whispers amplified by the cavernous and overly minimalist space. Counter intuitively narrow, the dining room serves gourmet British fare by Company of Cooks led by head chef Steve Beadle.

London: Ready For Its Close-up

The film briefly sees other neighbourhoods off the beaten path of London’s tourist scene including Bloomsbury, Hoxton, Hounslow, Shadwell and even abroad at West 47th Street in New York City. Each neighbourhood adds an extra flavour to the film’s plot, suggesting how the viewer ought to feel at any particular moment. The scene at the Heathrow’s Renaissence Hotel in Houslow for instance uses the sound effect of an airplane when Dan slaps Alice when she decides she’s no longer in love with him the night before they’re scheduled to take a trip to her hometown of New York City.

Alice ending her relationship with Dan at the Renaissance Hotel, Heathrow.

He does not get on the plane with her. When she arrives in New York, the Homeland Security officer stamps her passport and says, “Welcome back, Miss Jones” when stamping her passport. The travel document clearly shows a photo of the red-haired girl we know from the first scene only named Jane Jones.

At that same moment an emotionally wounded Dan is making his way through Postman’s Park again with a Costa Coffee in hand. He stops to gaze at the memorial again only to discover his beloved Alice is in fact a fraud. Alice Ayres was one of the heroes memorialized in the park. She died on April 24, 1885 saving the lives of the three children left in her charge. The 25-year-old tossed the three into the arms of firemen when her sister’s home in Borough went up in flames. When she herself went to jump from the window, the fall killed her.

Alice Ayres’ memorial tile at Postman’s Park.

The next scene shows us a now 25-year-old Jane, walking down West 47th Street in New York City now with long bouncy brown hair, looking virtually unrecognizable from the shorthaired pixie known as Alice Ayres throughout the film Closer. Although the film is filled with countless lies, this one is certainly the most exquisite of them all.

Jane Jones on W47th Street in New York City, GIF courtesy of Giphy.