“Before Keiller’s (or Robinson’s) prophetic gaze, the English countryside is a monument to itself, and ripe for revolutionary appropriation.”
‘Robinson in Ruins’, directed by Patrick Keiller in 2010, is a British conceptual documentary that examines the history and landscape of locations around Oxford. In essence it’s a ‘found footage’ movie: Vanessa Redgrave plays the narrator, reading a script that has been left by her lover in a caravan along with reels of film footage. The footage is a series of picturesque shots of nature, landscapes, abandoned buildings, streets and street furniture. The man taking the footage, ‘Robinson’, wanders the paths of Oxfordshire and Berkshire, at each location, the script mediates on the history and significance of the place from a left-wing perspective, tying the past and the mythology of the landscape in with the contemporary trauma of the global financial crisis. It’s a film infused with a sense of the apocalypse; of decay and of the decline of rural Britain (the ‘ruins’ of the title), but it is also a film that presents a heady and nostalgic picture of the countryside. The images Keiller presents are intensely beautiful and he lingers on each, often without any narration, to allow the full effect of the natural world to seep in before he unpacks his reason for filming it. Behind all this is the mythic, unseen Robinson, a character already set up in two previous films ‘London’ and ‘Robinson in Space’. This figure gives a sense of the outsider, like his namesake from Defoe’s novel a man shipwrecked and exploring his new environment. In the case of this film, the landscape is almost prosaically familiar and ordinary (crops being harvested, a spider spinning a web, lichen on a Newbury road-sign, the woodland where ex-weapons inspector Dr David Kelly committed suicide, but the mystery comes from the layers of the past that each place at times reveals and at other times conceals. It’s a film that targets politics, economics, war, the environment, but does so using direct, familiar and sometimes mundane imagery. In such a way, Keiller makes the ordinary, extraordinary.
Would I recommend it? Absolutely. It helped that I grew up in the landscape the Keiller filmed, but the movie is a powerful and moving work of psychogeography that says important things about our recent and distant past, and watching it will mean you’ll never look at a road-sign in the same way again. Watch in a double bill with ‘Penda’s Fen’, a movie that similarly connects left-wing politics and the British landscape with a mythic past.