London (1992)

“Life is a hospital where every patient is obsessed by the desire of changing beds. One would like to supper opposite the stove another is sure he’d get well beside the window.”

‘London’, directed by Patrick Keiller in 1992, is the first of a trilogy of documentary films that include ‘Robinson in Space’ and ‘Robinson in Ruins‘. As usual with a series of films I’ve managed to watch them out of order, but watching ‘Robinson in Ruins‘ first in no way spoils the experience. As with the later film, the idea is simple. An unseen man named Robinson tours an area of Britain, a modern flâneur, and as he does so his companion, a narrator voiced in this case by Paul Schofield, reflects on the history and politics of the locations they visit. In ‘London’, Robinson and his ‘Boswell’ walk the streets and wasteland of the capital at a time when the city was rocked by IRA bombs, when Thatcher’s legacy was burning up in the scandals and sleaze of John Major’s Prime Ministership and after Black Wednesday when the government was forced to withdraw the pound from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. We see protests, the damage of explosions, building work and political campaigning all against the backdrop of suburban and central London. The pair embark on expeditions around this mysterious ‘island’ that make connections between the cultural past and present of the city. The power of Keiller’s direction is his ability to mine mundane and prosaic images for profundity and, conversely, violent and abhorrent images such as the front of a bomb scarred building for beauty. His focus is on the minutia of the streets: on the functional architecture, the abandoned statues and the evacuated buildings. Keiller’s methodology is to draw attention to the unsung parts of the city as a way of supporting a thesis that intellectually critiques the capitalisation of the city and the twelve years of Tory rule.

Here is what Iain Sinclair says about it:

“Paul Scofield, that most pared-down, Xanaxed of Lears is the whisperer, the voice in the head, the syrup keeping authorial distemper in check. He is describing an absence, a necropolis of fretful ghosts, a labyrinth of quotations: not so much the ruin of a great city as the surgical removal of its soul.”

Would I recommend it? Yes – these films are set to enter my list of favourites. It’s not the sort of movie that grips, but the images and narration linger. As with ‘Robinson in Ruins’ it offers a way of looking at where we live that is unusual and fresh. A double or triple bill would be obvious as it’s part of a trilogy – but I’m going to suggest ‘Paddington’, a contrasting film with a similar political message, and because everyone needs to watch ‘Paddington’.

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