Is Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy the finest British film of the 1980s?

Looking back at the 1986 biopic’s typically British mix of the real and surreal – and its rather unusual origins.

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The party line states that the 1980s were a desolate time for movies. I don’t buy that. Just look at what was happening in British cinema alone. This was the decade that saw Bill Douglas return with his monumental Comrades, while Derek Jarman delivered his best film (Caravaggio) and one of his angriest (The Last of England). Terry Gilliam (US-born but subsequently a British citizen working in the UK) was at the peak of his powers with Time Bandits and Brazil, and Terence Davies and Peter Greenaway made their feature-length debuts.

Even at the more commercial end of the market there was room for adventurousness: take The Tall Guy, for instance, a daffy romcom by a little-known TV writer named Richard Curtis, who would go on to big, if not always great, things.

Mike Leigh and Stephen Frears, who had both made their debuts in 1971 (Leigh with Bleak Moments, Frears with Gumshoe), finally came back to cinema in the 1980s. Frears in particular was on fire, turning out an incredible hat-trick: The Hit, My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears. The last of these starred Gary Oldman, one of the most dazzling discoveries of that decade, as the puckish playwright Joe Orton.

Another firecracker actor to emerge around the same time was Daniel Day-Lewis – he got the part of a gay, former National Front bullyboy in My Beautiful Laundrette after Oldman turned it down. Both Oldman and Day-Lewis were in the running to play Sid Vicious in Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy but that part went eventually to Oldman.

Vicious and Orton make a nice pair: British rule-breakers who died too young. The actor claims not to have been happy with the script but he felt he had to accept the part. “Early on, I was a real arrogant fucker, really,” he said. “I think I’d just turned down enough stuff.”

Now, I don’t know what shape the screenplay was in when Oldman saw it but I have to say, on the evidence of how well it stands up 30 years after it was released, that Sid and Nancy has some claim on being the finest British film of the 1980s.

It’s an odd duck of a movie. Though Cox is British (he was born in Cheshire), he was no expert on the London punk scene. He had graduated from Bristol University in 1977 and came to the project via Los Angeles, having studied film at UCLA. It was in that city that he made his debut feature, the magical Repo Man, starring Emilio Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton. (It’s both spiky and sweet: a battle in celluloid form between punk’s nihilism and its energy.)

Pitching another project to a producer, he happened to discover that a movie about Vicious and his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, was being set up at one of the major studios with Rupert Everett and Madonna pencilled in for the leads. Cox told this ghastly news to his friend and screenwriting partner, Abbe Wool, and they decided to get to work on their own version, if for no other reason than to derail that proposed monstrosity.

Their ruse worked. Not only that, they made a brilliant and sensitive film – a vision of punk that is both a celebration of its triumphs and a criticism of its brazen wastefulness. Oldman is a vivid Vicious; the sharp edges in his performance are to be expected, perhaps, but the gentleness he brings is quite disarming.

Chloe Webb, as Nancy, has arguably the tougher challenge. She has to reclaim from sensationalist, misogynistic folklore a woman widely considered to have ruined and corrupted her more famous lover (the old John and Yoko myth again). Without exactly making Nancy likeable, she insists that we care about her. She can be shrill and excruciating: she’s like a bawling baby who’s been tipped out of her pram and wants the whole world to know that she’s mighty peeved about it.

But her pain has depth and shading. In her most powerful scene, Nancy makes a late-night long-distance telephone-box call to her mother in America, claiming that she and Sid have just got hitched. In fact, she just needs enough cash to score smack.

Nancy’s gradual collapse before our eyes, as she realises that her mother isn’t falling for it, is perfectly calibrated: bogus matrimonial bliss warps into little-princess pleading and finally scalding, volcanic rage. The scene ends with Nancy on her knees in the road. It’s dynamite.

British cinema has two main components to its DNA – social realism and eccentric fantasy. They are not incompatible. They co-exist in the films of Powell and Pressburger, Lindsay Anderson, Jarman, Lynne Ramsey, Andrea Arnold, Danny Boyle. And in Sid and Nancy.

The scene that everyone remembers lasts scarcely a minute, and shows the lovers in wide-shot kissing in an alley as rubbish falls from the skies all around them in slow-motion and a plangent guitar plays on the soundtrack. It’s spellbinding – and it distils into one shot that typically British mixture of the real and the surreal.

In an interview on the new DVD and Blu-ray edition of the movie, Cox recalls that he toyed with going even further down the route of poetic licence – he even considered the brash actor and cabaret performer Sandra Bernhard for the part of Sid. Talk about visionary. Though Eva Mattes had already played a version of Rainer Werner Fassbinder in the 1984 film A Man Like Eva, it would be another 20 years before Cate Blanchett won an Oscar for her insect-like portrayal of Bob Dylan in I’m Not There.

Sid and Nancy now looks like the overarching influence on many of the British films which followed (such as Trainspotting, 24-Hour Party People, We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Arbor and Andrea Arnold’s forthcoming American Honey). Cox concedes in the interview that the film’s wistful ending might have gone too far in favour of romanticism. On reflection, I think he’s right. But of all the flaws a movie can have, loving your characters too deeply must fall fairly low on the list.

Sid and Nancy is on Blu-ray and DVD now.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.