Like getting back into Shakespeare after a long separation, it takes some adjustment to get used to London’s unique pacing and style, but the effort is worthwhile.
The Problem of London
London is not a documentary and it’s certainly not a travelogue that the City of London would want to use as marketing for tourists. Nonetheless, it serves as an intimate look at London as it was in 1992.
Focusing mainly on those areas away from the limelight known to tourists (although Parliament and Leicester Square still make their appearances in the film), Patrick Keiller’s London is partly a scathing critique of British politics and a lamentation of a city lost, but ultimately it is arguably a love letter to one of the world’s largest cities.
There are no “characters” per se in London; it is simply the compilation of footage shot by Keiller, an architect turned filmmaker, during 1992. Accompanying the images is a narration voiced by Paul Scofield, perhaps best known to American audiences via his work in the movies Quiz Show, Mel Gibson’s Hamlet, and The Crucible.
The narrator speaks of his unseen friend, Robinson, as they go on various expeditions during the course of the year. It’s a device Keiller would pick up again in the “sequel,” Robinson in Space, wherein Robinson continues his investigation into the “problem of London.”
During their travels, the narrator tells the story of his pal (and presumably homosexual lover) as Robinson struggles to find happiness at home and keep his job in a London that finds more and more people suffering economically. Adding to the difficulties of city life, the IRA’s bombs blast the city on numerous occasions.
The imagery is not always pristine and inspirational. Sometimes the scenes reveal the embarrassment of pop culture, as when, while the narrator speaks of “romantic” London, a McDonald’s is shown in a quaint neighborhood, with the rooftop’s enormous inflatable Ronald McDonald blighting the view. But there are also scenes that serve as an homage to those things truly British, as with the festival of bonfires on Guy Fawkes Night.
To be sure, this is a unique film – one that might require a fair amount of patience from viewers. It’s not sexy and action packed, instead it’s thoughtful and interesting for those who care to listen.
There are none. At least an introduction of some sort by Keiller would have been nice to simply set the stage and perhaps provide some insight into the inspiration for this project.
As it stands, the viewing experience is immersive and mysterious.
Picture and Sound
London is presented in full frame with, given the production’s ambitions, an adequate picture quality.
The stereo sound is sufficient, but the volume needs to be turned up higher than usual in order to hear Scofield’s narration more clearly.