Robinson in Space

Published on: March 23rd, 2004



UK 1997 : Patrick Keiller : 82 mins

The best British film of the nineties is, appropriately enough, an insanely ambitious portrait of Britain in the nineties. Neither documentary nor fiction, Keiller ’s followup to London (1994) instead stakes out its own territory  – quite literally, as we rove all over England, though, paradoxically, the camera never moves within individual shots.

There are two unseen  ‘characters ’:  ‘The Narrator ’ (Paul Scofield), and his friend Robinson, an enigmatic, hard-up intellectual hired by an unspecified  ‘international advertising agency ’ to investigate  ‘the problem of England. ’ As well as being invisible to us, Robinson is also never heard, but he ’s emphatically the driving force behind the pair ’s excursions through countryside and town, industrial estate and port, supermarket and factory, back alley and country house. Along each step of the way, we see what they see, we hear what they hear, with the Narrator imparting fact after fact.

Seven expeditions are planned, in recreation of Daniel Defoe ’s three-volume Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724-6)  – but, as in David Fincher ’s Se7en, the fact that the film has at least a notional (septiform) structure is of much greater importance than that structure ’s t-crossing completion. Despite its appearance of rigorous, Greenaway-esque adherence to a precise formula, Robinson In Space is an engagingly shaggy creation: in defiance of Defoe, our heroes never quite make it to Scotland or Wales, and there ’s one brief, startlingly unexpected detour to continental Europe.

 ‘The Narrator ’ is very well named, as he never shuts up  – but since Scofield has one of the great all-time speaking voices (check out the moment in The Crucible when he booms  “Now we will touch the bottom of this … swamp ”), this is a major plus, not any kind of minus. Expressively deadpan whether intoning profundity or absurdity (and there ’s plenty of both along the way) he gives warmth to what could easily have been a chilly exercise in alien detachment. And when he does occasionally fall silent  – including right at the very end  – the impact is astonishing.

Keiller spins together episodes from history, events from novels, arcane aspects of modern science (a running joke revolves around mysterious carbon particles  ‘Buckminsterfullerines ’).His fascination with his nation ’s past only serves to sharpen his disgust at the iniquities of the present  – there are moments of searing polemical anger at the depradations of the Conservative government to rank alongside anything in Ken Loach, even if the prevailing note of bemused good humour is much closer to, say, an Alan Bennett monologue.

Among writers, W G Sebald and Iain Sinclair are the most obvious parallels; in the cinema, Robinson takes its place in a lineage that runs from Vertov ’s Man With A Movie Camera to James Benning ’s Los. High-brow, high-flying company indeed, but Keiller ’s work if anything deserves margial precedence by being so eminently approachable  – the combination of Scofield ’s voice and Keiller ’s prose would probably make for outstanding radio on their own, but we also have some remarkable images to look at, puzzle over and absorb.

Some are conventionally  ‘picturesque ’ (including the raging sea at Keiller ’s native Blackpool), straight from a Tourist Board video. At other times, we ’re taken into hidden, semi-forbidden areas of trade and manufacture: gleaming high-tech business parks, or enterprises so old they ’ve passed into the national cultural consciousness, like the factory where  ‘England ’s Glory ’ matches are made. In his pathological fascination with this hidden industrial underbelly, Keiller has a surprising amount in common with Michael Mann ’s vision of Los Angeles in Heat  – another connection is the fact that audiences may never want either dazzling movie to end.

original review written 8th January, 2002
rewritten 30th September, 2002

(seen on video, Jan-6-02)

by Neil Young
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