SUNDANCE REVIEW: Experimental New Frontiers Film 'Nine Muses' Confounds

The kind of classy but confounding esoterica that pops up at every film festival.

PARK CITY -- (New Frontier) Whenever people start to fear that the Sundance Film Festival is becoming too commercial, along will come an experimental, impenetrable film like The Nine Muses to silence the critics. There are zero box office prospects for director John Akomfrah's impressionistic meditation on African, Asian, and Caribbean migration to England, but the film will find a place at a few selective festivals.

At the Sundance screening, Akomfrah (who was born in Ghana) explained that he and his producing partners on the film were all descended from immigrants, and they wanted to explore their legacy in an unconventional, non-documentary format. They do include some evocative documentary snippets recording the lives of some of these new arrivals to Britain during the 1950s and 60s. But the film is an ambitious potpourri that draws on Greek mythology and many other sources to suggest that the journey of strangers to a strange land is a timeless one.

One recurring motif in the film is eerie footage of a solitary, parka-clad figure lost in a vast snowy landscape. Since these strikingly photographed scenes were actually shot in Alaska, it's hard to know what relevance they might have to a story of Africans and Asians in Europe. Akomfrah explained that he wanted the images to convey the isolation of all immigrants, but without the director on hand to provide commentary at subsequent screenings, audiences will be unlikely to fathom the purpose of these interludes.

The soundtrack contains recordings of many fine actors--including John Barrymore, Richard Burton, and Michael Sheen--reciting passages from The Odyssey, Paradise Lost, Richard II, Finnegan's Wake, Under Milk Wood, and many other classics that occasionally have a comprehensible connection to the movie's themes. There are also musical interludes that are often quite haunting. Nine Muses is clearly the work of a talented filmmaker, and there are many moments to beguile the ears as well as the eyes. Yet it's a long slog through a few thousand years of myth and history, and most viewers are likely to grow impatient during the journey.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (New Frontier)
Production: U.K. Film Council, Smoking Dog Films
Director-screenwriter: John Akomfrah
Producers: Lina Gopaul, David Lawson
Director of photography: Dewald Aukema
Music: Trevor Mathison
Editor: Miikka Leskinen
No rating, 98 minutes