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London (1994)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997

An idiosyncratic but stimulating tour of London, past and present, London contrasts the permanence of city with the ephemerality of its citizens. In early 1992, the narrator (Paul Scofield) is working as ship's photographer on a cruise liner. He has, for a long time, kept away from Britain by choice. However, now his old friend and lover Robinson has got in contact and invited him back. The idea is that he can render assistance to Robinson on his latest investigation, one that will lay bare the pulsing strands of the metropolis. Thus the narrator finds himself returning to once familiar territory and realising, with a shock, how different it all seems.

Robinson's aim is to traverse, by foot, the length and breadth of London, in search of understanding. Fortunately, to make their plans slightly more concrete, Robinson has picked a small number of destinations that hold significant literary value. Thus the pair begin by visiting Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, the location where Horace Walpole penned his classic horror story. In bright sunshine and rain, they explore, meet people and comment on the environment around them. With the intermediate desire to reach Robinson's Vauxhall flat, seemingly unrelated scenes parade across the screen as their journey unfolds.

Unlike any other contemporary film, London is the brainchild of Patrick Keiller. With only the most basic elements of cinema (scattered images and a lone voice), Keiller mixes the forces of high art and intellectual thought with the formless clay of everyday, quotidian existence. Just how inspired this melding of the seemingly incompatible is only becomes clear as London progresses. Revolving around the Tory Government, the election and the impact that both have upon London, the film reaches beyond these to attain a unique perspective. By forcing the viewer consider the city at every level, London makes you either turn away or open up to new insights (which reflect upon the film-watcher as much as upon the filmmaker). This is a truly interactive film, avoiding the normal constrictions of the monologue, which depends upon a responsive audience.

The explanation as to why London makes such an impact is a simple one -- the majority of people live out their days with their gaze focused a few feet in front of them. Occasionally, however, something startling intrudes, bringing them up short and resonating deeply within their soul. It's not important to identify what the catalyst of this reaction is (it could be a building, the swell of a river, a sound) but merely to recognise that these moments occur. The power of London is that it condenses a lifetime of these fragments into a single intense and exhausting film. With very little music or sound of any sort included to break the spell, London gives you time to ponder and glimpse the greater whole. So, while Keiller composes a seemingly random choice of shots, this is fine because that's exactly what we experience normally.

On top of this, Keiller has penned a brilliantly erudite script, full of diversions, observations, bias, deadpan remarks, understanding and romanticism. Meandering through the city, Robinson knows its history as if it were his own and feels for it in every cell of his body. To him the capital lives and breathes, an infinitely flexible being which bends to its population's will but could exist without them. Although a potentially depressing picture, falling into step with the alienation of the typical city dweller, Keiller turns this around by historical association. Unfortunately the literary concentration within London steadily falls, as the film becomes more observational, but this is not so surprising given the early depth. Ultimately the message extracted from London is dependent upon the viewer; Keiller provides the raw data, only you can interpret it.

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