Although rich in ideas and always compelling to look at, writer-helmer Patrick Keiller’s latest semi-experimental pic “Robinson in Ruins” reps a minor disappointment after his outstanding, same-veined previous works, “London” and “Robinson in Space.” Like its predecessors, “Ruins” consists solely of static footage of places and things accompanied by narration describing the peregrinations of a character named Robinson around Blighty’s countryside. Although topics covered range from the land reform to mass extinction, pic hasn’t quite got its predecessors’ breathtaking range of reference or their spritely wit. Still, “Ruins” will be preserved at fests, with outings in super-niche distribution.
Perhaps the simplest way to describe the Robinson films for those who’ve never seen them is to say they’re like highbrow radio plays with pictures, although the experience of watching them is much richer than that sounds. Keiller’s essay films are have more in common with works by writers — particularly “psycho-geographers” like Iain Sinclair — than they do with other experimental films.
“Ruins” will mostly baffle anyone who hasn’t seen the earlier films. In the first, “London” (1994), an unnamed narrator voiced by the late Paul Scofield (whose droll, honeyed tones enhanced both pics so deeply) describes how he and his lover Robinson explored the burg of the title, from Downing Street, the prime minister’s residence, to Ikea in deepest suburban Brent Cross, all part of a quest to map the “psychic landscape” of the capital, with digressions about Baudelaire, H.G. Wells, and Laurence Sterne, among many others. All the while, the camera shows places visited in long shot or more often closeups of smaller details. Any people seen are just passing strangers.
“Robinson in Space” offered more of the same, but with Robinson and the same narrator trudging around parts of London’s greenbelt and beyond, on a quest to solve “the problem of England” for a fictional advertising agency.
In “Ruins,” the narrator’s role has been taken over by an unnamed woman (Vanessa Redgrave) who claims to have met Robinson at a conference on documaking in China. Keeping up the mock-doc tradition, she claims to have assembled the material unspooling here from reels shot in 2008 found in Robinson’s abandoned mobile home and notebooks, Robinson having subsequently disappeared.
The ramblings this time are mostly in and around Oxfordshire and Berkshire, occasionally nipping back to a semi-derelict London house. Robinson visits Greenham Common, the site of a famous, women-only peace camp in the ’80s, as well as places which show the near-invisible scars of the hotly contested Enclosure acts, which reformed the landscape from the 16th century onwards. Items as seemingly innocuous as a sign denoting an underground pipeline are linked to the worldwide economic crisis of 2008.
Over the long haul, the narration’s repetitive listing of companies, and digressions about agrarian reform and its discontents proves taxing even for fans of Keiller’s early work. At least the lovely shots of flora and fauna, filmed originally on 35mm, prove soothing to look at, even if they’re coupled with reminders of how many species will soon be extinct.
Tone is elegiac throughout, but a sense of exhausted depression makes the running time feel longer than it is.