Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
1994's London is an eccentric, and very English, conceptual documentary. It might at first be confused for a travelogue but quickly reveals itself as a rarified intellectual rumination illustrated with scenes of the English city and environs. It is the first film by Patrick Keiller, an ex-architect. He followed it up with a semi-sequel from 1997 called Robinson in Space.
Some intellectual pictures are difficult and some are obscure by choice; London has a bit of both qualities. Visually, it's a series of hundreds of static shots taken around the city, accompanied by a literary voiceover by Paul Scofield. Scofield "plays" a nameless fellow who relates the desultory travels of his equally unseen friend, named Robinson, around the city. It's an excuse to bring up dozens of subjects of all kinds. Filmed in 1992, they visit various sites of IRA terror bombings, marked off by yellow tape. One location has buildings with broken windows on all sides.
But most of Robinson's quests are in search of literary sites, such as an important 18th-century living-place of Laurence Sterne, the author of Tristram Shandy. These invariably bring up intellectual issues not found outside third-year English literature classes. Almost like Dr. Watson recording the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the narrator is there to relate Robinson's every sage observation. This style puts the author's opinions at a third remove, making them seem even more important.
Robinson scours the city in search of miraculous inspirations from the mysterious lost past, seeking meaningful associations with locations that have been trod by the famous and the talented. Of course, what we see are modern Londoners going about their business unaware of the significance that Robinson sees. Like a tour guide for the arcane, the camera regards the sign for a pub called The Green Man while Scofield's voice tells us that it's the exact same pub featured in H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds.
Keiller spends plenty of time on details like little wildflowers by the side of the road or metal emergency stretchers re-used as fencing outside a hospital, to pace the film and keep it from becoming a lecture. Scofield's measured and unstressed speech also guarantees that. Droll humor comes in from time to time, and not all of it verbal. Robinson and the narrator catch trains and take long walks, and twice come upon a pair of traveling Peruvian songwriters. Since the only evidence we have of them are some pleasant folk songs on the soundtrack, we assume that the Peruvians are all made up, perhaps as a sideways comment on homosexuality. In fact, without a Masters' degree in English, Keiller's ironic observations about how London's earlier inhabitants viewed life are likely to sail right over one's head. Some English critics remark on the film's fantastic nature, and we don't know if they're referring to the stories Robinson is telling, or the artifice of the narration itself.
But that's only part of London's concern. Trained architect Keiller also notes physical details in the city that are relevant to him, and talks about the forgotten meanings of sites of interest. He also presents his point of view on the evolution of London itself, a victim of political re-zoning, pollution and social confusion. After decades of governmental experimentation (Keiller doesn't limit his disapproval to the Thatcher years) the city center has hollowed out -- fewer people actually live there. He compares the pulse of the city to other places like Paris. He shows the Queen dedicating a monument to a WW2 bombing strategist while a crowd boos, calling the man a mass murderer - he's the one who targeted Dresden. The city is honoring a bomb terror expert from history at the same time it's suffering deadly strikes by modern bomb terrorists.
London was made by the production wing of the British Film Institute, which explains why it plays as a film by and for intellectual elites. Keiller's writing is not at all condescending, but its dry wit is going to be inaccessible to many. The ideal audience for this picture will probably have read about it before giving it a spin.
Keiller's static camera captures hundreds of interesting moments, most of them reflective in nature, visual wallpaper to go behind Paul Scofield's voiceover. Scofield rattles on with Robinson's opinions on 18th century authors over early countryside shots that tend to be green and pastoral, but even when he returns to the center of London there is a concentration on waterways and bridges. We see many famous places but just as many details of phone boxes and walls with ancient torn paper, like old Blitz shelter instructions and a torn poster for This is Cinerama. Keiller and a partner wandered about for months with a camera, incurring no extraordinary expense outside of the rentals and film stock. There are no opticals, just hard cuts. Through the magic of DVD freeze frame, we can see the filmmaker's two-man crew several times in the show, reflected in shiny cabs and trucks.
London winds up as quietly as it began. It will delight some viewers already acquainted with and interested in English politics and literature but it's obviously not a mass-market item. Patrick Keiller's follow-up Robinson in Space reportedly takes a wider set of tours of England and makes explicit the linkage between this "Robinson" and author Daniel Defoe's adventuresome Robinson Crusoe.
Facets' Video's London presents an excellent BFI transfer of the film with a satisfactory encoding. The disc has ten chapter stops but no extras. Facets' publicity handouts mention a Collectable Booklet of notes, that was not included in the unpackaged (but final) disc sent for review.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 29, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson