'By Our Selves': Film Review

By our selves Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Soda Pictures
A magical monochrome mystery tour through literature and landscape.

Toby Jones, his father Freddie and cult comics author Alan Moore appear in this high-art docudrama about the mentally fragile English nature poet John Clare.

Tapping into the lonely beauty and pagan weirdness of the English countryside, By Our Selves is the latest impressionistic essay-film collaboration between director Andrew Kotting and author Iain Sinclair. The duo last worked together three years ago on Swandown, an idiosyncratic documentary about a journey down the River Thames in a swan-shaped pedal boat. This time their focus is the 19th century poet John Clare, who was previously the subject of Sinclair’s 2005 book Edge of the Orison, and is embodied here in a dolefully wordless performance by Toby Jones.

A visual artist, academic and filmmaker, Kotting belongs to a fertile tradition of British artisan auteurs like Derek Jarman, Chris Petit and Patrick Keiller. All four share some of Sinclair’s “psychogeography” method of drifting through landscapes while piecing together a multi-layered narrative from multiple literary, historical and sensory sources. Jarringly experimental at times, but also witty and playful and beautifully shot in luminous hi-def monochrome, the Kickstarter-funded By Our Selves is currently on selective U.K. release. Though clearly limited in commercial potential, the solid cult reputation of its creators should translate into modest but devoted interest in cineaste circles.

Feted for his celebrations of nature and rural peasant life, John Clare spent long periods in a mental asylum in Epping Forest, east of London. But he escaped in 1841 to embark on a 90-mile journey by foot to Northampton in search of his first love, Mary Joyce, unaware that she had died three years before. By Our Selves uses this voyage of psychic discovery as a key narrative thread, overlaying it with all kinds of meta-textual material, quirky digressions and striking visual flourishes designed to evoke the poet’s scrambled state of mind.

One of the film’s conceits is to have the veteran British character actor Freddie Jones (The Elephant Man, Wild at Heart), father of Toby, reciting Clare’s poetry and biographical excerpts. Jones Sr. actually played Clare in a 1970s TV drama, from which Kotting lifts fragments of dialogue to drop into his dense audio mix of looped vocal phrases, ghostly sound effects and ragged folk-punk songs by Jem Finer of Anglo-Irish band The Pogues. The Scottish avant-garde musician and performance artist MacGillivray (aka Kirsten Norrie) also features on the soundtrack, and plays Mary Joyce in Clare’s feverish hallucinations.

Sinclair and Kotting both appear on screen in disguise, the author in a Donnie Darko-ish goat mask, the director bizarrely dressed as a straw bear, both invoking classic British "folk horror" movies from The Wicker Man to A Field in England. The director’s daughter Eden Kotting, who co-starred in his terrific 1996 debut feature Gallivant, also provides the hand-written credits and has a costumed cameo as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz in the film’s brief flirtation with color. Serving as expert witnesses from the sidelines are cult comics author Alan Moore (V for Vendetta, Watchmen) and the Oxford literary scholar Simon Kovesi, both of whom have written about Clare.

For all its rich mix of ingredients, Kotting’s latest fine-art passion project is by no means a conventional or coherent docudrama about Clare. Many of its tonal and textural juxtapositions feel arbitrary, while the stream-of-consciousness structure has more rhyme than reason. Half an hour on the internet will provide you with more solid facts. Even so, By Our Selves is a feast for the senses with its hypnotic rhythms and luscious visuals. Less a film about poetry than a filmic poem itself, this eccentric road movie wanders down a few blind alleys, but mostly feels like a magical mystery tour.

Production company: Soda Pictures

Cast: Toby Jones, Freddie Jones, Iain Sinclair, Alan Moore, Eden Kotting, Simon Kovesi

Director: Andrew Kotting

Screenwriters: Andrew Kotting, Iain Sinclair

Cinematographer: Nick Gordon Smith

Editors: Cliff West, Andrew Kotting

Producers: Edward Fletcher, Andrew Kotting

Music: Jem Finer

Sound: Philippe Ciompi

No rating, 80 minutes