1995, 84 min. Directed by Patrick Keiller. Starring Paul Scofield.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 21, 1994
Narrated in the diffuse tones of Paul Scofield, Keiller's film is an atypical documentary look at modern London through the eyes of a pair of apparently middle-aged lovers, both of whom remain unglimpsed and only one of whom we actually hear. Setting out an a series of three distinct walking tours of the city of London and its environs, “Robinson” and his friend move in leisurely patterns, visiting Strawberry Hill (the former home of Hugh Walpole); Edgar Allan Poe's old middle-school, Vauxhall; the river Thames; No. 10, Downing Street; and other, less familiar places. While the camera pans about, taking in the conglomeration of foreign-looking faces that is London today, the narrator reflects on the changes time and Tories have wrought on the empire since Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Verlaine, and other English romantic (and not too romantic) poets flourished here. In spite of this running historical monologue from Scofield, Keiller is determined to give us a glimpse of the “real” London. Accordingly, we're treated to shots of IRA shell craters, shattered husks of council flats, muck and sewage floating inches thick atop the Thames, telephone boxes with sex advertisements and terrorist warnings plastered to their smudgy windows, shopping malls, and the sooty grit that underlies everything about London today. It's disarming, to say the least. Toward the end of this 84-minute travelogue from hell, you begin to wish that the narrator would stop beating about the bush and just come out and state the obvious: “London's a bloody mess.” But instead, Scofield yammers on in that peculiarly sonorous voice of his, allowing just the slightest tone of condescension to creep into his voice as he endlessly name-drops 18th-century poetic and literary figures. As a sideways glance at the plight of London in the Nineties, Keiller's film gets the job done with surreal aplomb. As a quasi-comic historical document serving to link city-past with city-present, however, London, the film, occasionally goes belly-up, resembling nothing more than London, the city.