Review: ‘Robinson in Space’

Narrator: Paul Scofield.

Narrator: Paul Scofield.

Second time around isn’t quite the charm with “Robinson in Space,” an attempt by British director Patrick Keiller to apply the same dry wit and pointed observation of his 1994 docu “London” to Britain as a whole. Less insightful than the earlier work, and showing stretch marks well before the end, this second feature-length work by the architect-cum-audiovisual artist looks destined for highly specialized distribution beyond festival showings.

An aesthete filmmaker working in the tradition of early Peter Greenaway, Keiller remains an original talent whose works already have a distinctive signature. The problem with “Robinson” is presentation: After a while, the sameness of the style obscures any observable line of thought.

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.

Robinson in Space

(British-Docu)

Production

A British Film Institute release (in U.K.) of a BBC Films presentation, in association with the BFI, of a Koninck production. (International sales: BFI, London.) Produced by Keith Griffiths. Executive producers, Tessa Ross, Ben Gibson. Directed, written by Patrick Keiller. Camera (color), Keiller; editor, Larry Sider; music, excerpts from works by Allan Gray, Hanns Eisler, Link Wray; sound, Sider, Colin Martin; associate producer, Julie Norris. Reviewed at BFI preview theater, London, Dec. 9, 1996. (Also in Rotterdam Film Festival --- competing; Berlin Festival --- Forum.) Running time: 81 MIN.
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