Great cities inspire elaborate laments, and British avant-garde filmmaker Patrick Keiller might be the poet laureate of the form. His Robinson trilogy—London (1994), Robinson in Space (1997), and Robinson in Ruins (2010), which makes its U.S. theatrical premiere in Anthology’s Keiller retrospective—is a rigorous, agile, scathingly funny reckoning with a city and society in the last stages of decline.
Adopting the tone and breadth of a picaresque novel, this sprawling cinematic essay in three parts pivots on the commentary of a pair of narrators (Paul Scofield in London and Space, Vanessa Redgrave in Ruins) who recount the excursions of fictional philosopher-historian Robinson, who has been sent on “a peripatetic study of the problem of England” for his shady employers. These travels, first in the “fearful ant heap” of the capital and then to the peripheries of the rest of the country, are obliquely represented by beautifully composed middle-distance shots of Blighty’s abundant historical relics, squalid suburbs, haphazard public spaces, and shitty industrial hubs. None of the human protagonists appear on camera.
Hardly the stuff of BritRail brochures, but the narrators’ droll, observational riffing enlivens the dreary imagery. Shifting with jarring grace from the banal accounting of accommodations and meals (in mall food courts and supermarkets, more often than not) to withering assessments of urban dementia (“There is no town in the world which is more adapted for training one away from people, and training one into solitude, than London”), the triptych plays like James Boswell with a chip on his shoulder. Literary associations provide the jumping-off point for the wide-ranging reflections—Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe looms large in more ways than one—but architecture, pop culture, art, and commerce all make it into the mix. The result is an intellectually voracious, morally outraged depressive’s travelogue that struggles with modernity’s crippling variety and untenable contradictions even as it engages them. Incredibly, Keiller makes the process invigorating rather than demoralizing.
In London and especially Robinson in Space, Keiller is assisted hugely by Scofield’s chipper deadpan. Robinson in Ruins, the least satisfying of the three films, suffers from Redgrave’s rote, indifferent monotone in comparison. Maybe that’s a fitting mode for a death rattle, though, which is how Ruins registers, and together the films comprise an undeniably caustic catalog of capitalism’s arrogance and brutality, if not its obituary. But amid the heartbroken scolding, Keiller also exhibits something like pride in the flow of human history and a tenderness for the artifacts—including an inscrutable, centuries-old milestone at Robinson’s last known habitat, a dilapidated trailer 58 cryptic miles from London—that signify both its tenacity and futility.