As in “London,” Keiller invents two offscreen characters — an unnamed narrator (again voiced by Paul Scofield) and his gay male companion, Robinson, who here has been commissioned by an international advertising agency to make a study of contemporary Britain’s unspecified “problem.” Inspired by Daniel Defoe’s “Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain,” the two set off around the country on seven separate journeys.
As portrayed in the immaculately framed visuals (reflecting Keiller’s architectural background), Britain comes over as a collection of suburban malls, distribution centers, industrial parks, highways and roadside diners. This is the “space” through which the duo travel, a space in which people are largely absent.
Pic’s basic argument is that two decades of Conservative government rule have turned the island into a conundrum — seemingly a quiet, provincial backwater riddled with signs of decline but in fact a highly deregulated economy that is the fifth largest in the world. The contradiction finally unhinges Robinson, whose contract is abruptly terminated.
Unlike “London,” which made many pertinent observations about the capital, “Robinson” ends up as confused as its fictional character, increasingly relying on Keiller’s intellectual conceit in the absence of any clear, thoroughgoing argument. Effect is like leafing through a picture album with someone bombarding you with facts over your shoulder.
More of the Oscar Wilde-like wit that occasionally comes through would have helped to humanize the film. But at 80-odd minutes, pic says less about contemporary Britain than Andrew Kotting’s recent pan-island “Gallivant.” Technically, it’s top-drawer.