Monday 7 March 2016

By Our Selves (UK 2015: Dir Andrew Kotting)

The profile of the 19th century visionary poet John Clare has risen considerably in the last few decades, championed by writers and thinkers who recognised in his writing an echo of their own concerns about the environment and landscape change. They also saw in his most famous act - a 90 mile walk from the asylum in Essex (where he was incarcerated) back to his home near Peterborough, in search of his lost love Mary Joyce - a representation of the type of psychogeographical circumnavigation that occupied writers like Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore.

Both Sinclair and Moore feature in By Our Selves, a film by Andrew Kotting which recreates Clare's famous walk, using actor Toby Jones as the poet, with Jones's own father Freddie reading excerpts from Clare's on the road writings.

It's a strange old beast of a film, as eccentric as its cast. Shot in luminous black and white, authentically dressed Jones, as Clare, pounds the streets from Essex to Northamptonshire surrounded by all the horror of 20th and 21st century roadside architecture. At one point Clare stands waiting to cross a busy road, with the poet looking on, horrified, at the thundering traffic, like a romantic Catweazle. The making of the film is deconstructed as we watch - the bearded boom operator is constantly in sight, and the advisory team are shown interviewing each other about Clare, the significance of his madness, and the psychogeographic nature of the surrounding area.

This sort of thing arguably works much better on the printed page - in fact Iain Sinclair used the Clare walk as the subject of his 2006 book 'Edge of the Orison', interspersed with the usual arcane and political elements with which he fills his writings - but less so on screen, where the vocal and physical meanderings are ever only mildly interesting. Nick Gordon Smith's beautiful black and white photography, adding grace both to countryside and shopping centre, almost saves the day, and Jones pere et fils are suitably ripe in their roles, but ultimately there's a lack of central narration here, a device which made Patrick Keiller's rather similar 'Robinson' films (London (1994), Robinson in Space (1997), Robinson in Ruins (2010)) so much more interesting. Clare's walk may well be of intense fascination to the crew who put By Our Selves together, but they forgot to make it interesting for the viewing audience.

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