An Enigmatic Trek Through England’s Industial Gray Zones


Never released and barely known in the U.S., Patrick Keiller’s wondrously idiosyncratic Robinson in Space (1997) is a psychogeographic travelogue through the forgotten history and secret life of industrial England. Keiller reunites the two unseen characters from his 1994 urban trek London: a sonorous narrator (Paul Scofield) and his friend Robinson, a know-it-all intellectual. Commissioned by an international ad agency, the pair embark on a “peripatetic study of the problem of England,” their zigzagging itinerary loosely modeled on Daniel Defoe’s A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain. Drifting from an Adam Ant signing to the site of Dorian Gray’s opium den, from the country’s leading fetish-wear producer to Robert Burton’s Oxford monument, this is a very British variation on a Chris Marker cine-essay—though its pungently detailed assimilation of fact and fiction (not to mention effortless interdisciplinary grasp of history, geography, and architecture) suggests no one so much as W.G. Sebald (Robinson actually predates the 1998 English publication of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn). Singling out locations at once sinister and mundane, Keiller’s static camera sets the deadpan tone: His impeccably framed shots of strangely beautiful container ports, commercial parks, and power stations amount to a slo-mo flip book of postcards from England’s industrial gray zones, curiously depopulated hives of activity. The genteel, radio-ready timbre of Scofield’s narration is at poker-faced odds with its content—an associative tangle of literary footnotes, political commentary, and randomly deranged factoids, with the occasional off-color aside.