Hollywood's rubbish Tube geography in Thor 2 is an unnecessary distraction

Londoners know the Tube map off by heart, so why do scriptwriters test their patience with needless mistakes?

The recently released film Thor: The Dark World is a huge fantasy epic spanning nine intergalactic realms, following the story of an alien creature with god-like powers fighting to save the universe from the powers of darkness. But what really killed the film’s gritty realism for me was the poor Tube geography.

Londoners are not known for their willingness to talk whilst on public transport, or their politeness, but it’s an unspoken point of pride that when asked by a tourist that they will give the quickest and most accurate directions. The London Underground is so central to the city that even if you’re not a native (I emigrated from Leicester a few years ago), Harry Beck’s iconic Tube map will become ingrained into your mind. So when Thor gets on the Tube at Charing Cross and is told by a fellow passenger he is three stops from Greenwich, it’s intensely frustrating.

Why couldn’t they have just fixed the script? Surely the actor who they employed for just that one line was a local who would know? Unfortunately for Thor, the correct route isn’t quite so simple. He’d have to leave the Tube station, hop on the national rail train from Charing Cross mainline station, and change at London Bridge. And even then to get to Greenwich Park, where shit was going down, it might be quicker to go to Maze Hill station, one stop after Greenwich.

Or how about taking the short walk to Embankment, taking the District to Monument, changing to Bank and taking the DLR to Cutty Sark? Or there’s even the number 53 bus - though if he takes this latter option, the odds of him turning up just in the nick of time are going to be significantly reduced.

Thor 2 isn’t alone though in getting London wrong. Last year’s Bond film, Skyfall, had Bond board a train at Temple station that aficionados (that’s how I’m choosing to refer to train spotters) will be able to tell you was actually a deep-level Jubilee line train rather than the sort used on the District and Circle lines. And this isn’t even to mention the fact that in Bond’s world, the District line apparently serves the Spitalfields (EDIT: Smithfields) area.

Similarly, the cerebral thriller Fast & Furious 6 at one point has a fight in the tunnels at Aldwych station only to emerge in what Vin Diesel’s character later refers to as Waterloo station - though this is perhaps forgivable in comparison to the film’s utterly bizarre street race sequence above ground. In this case, they hold a loud party literally next to the Foreign Office (how did they get a permit for that?) before racing along a bizarre route up Whitehall, skipping Trafalgar Square, emerging at Piccadilly Circus from the wrong direction before, umm, somehow heading north up Whitehall again. Though I guess this is a film that also tries to pass off a barely disguised Lambeth Bridge as Moscow (some onion domes have been added to buildings in post-production), and Senate House as Interpol HQ.

Perhaps the worst London geography fail I’ve seen, though, is in the 2009 Bollywood film London Dreams. At the start of the film a boy called Arjun and his uncle come to London in search of stardom. When they arrive at Heathrow, Arjun runs away... and manages to run all the way to Shad Thames. Just over 20 miles away. Impressive.

Okay, so London geography errors are pretty common - but why do they persist? It’s such a trivial thing, why can’t filmmakers get them right?

In the case of the Tube, the reason is practical. The two most common filming locations on the Underground are the disused station at Aldwych (seen in Fast & Furious 6), which used to be on a branch of the Piccadilly line until it closed in 1994, and the similarly disused Jubilee line platforms at Charing Cross (used for Skyfall and Thor 2), which were used until the line was extended to Stratford via Westminster in 1999. It’s much easier to film on some closed track than upset thousands of commuters.

Now, am I kicking up a fuss over something essentially trivial? Well, yes - but what I don’t understand is how millions of dollars can be spent on making a giant spaceship appear to hover over the Royal Maritime Museum in Greenwich, yet for some reason the budget doesn’t extend to fixing a few rogue signposts in the a Tube station.

And given how London is home to six million people - many of whom presumably like to watch films - can’t a little more care be taken? This can’t be unique to London either - I imagine residents of New York, Los Angeles and many other cities must find this maddening. Am I the only person who finds rubbish geography distracting?

If you want to find me to argue, I’ll be on platform 12 at Clapham Junction. I’ll be the guy with the notebook and the anorak.

Thor in Greenwich, which is not three stops from Charing Cross. (Image: Marvel)
FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism