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New Release Review - BY OUR SELVES

Poet John Clare walks some 80 miles in search of a lost love.


Review by Rúairí Conneely (@rmconneely)

Directed by: Andrew Kotting

Starring: Toby Jones, Freddie Jones, Iain Sinclair, Alan Moore




"This film is like a palimpsest under an x-ray with various distinct layers confused into one. Many will be bored by it, some will hate it, and a lucky few will be in just the right mood and utterly compelled."




The poet John Clare is the subject of Andrew Kotting’s By Our Selves, a British production that walks along the edge of the fence between documentary and arthouse allegory. By chance, I’d been watching Fellini’s 8 ½ out of the corner of my eye last night, and so was unexpectedly primed for the plastic realities and bluntly ‘experimental’ presentation of By Our Selves. This is the sort of film that some will immediately switch off from, frustrated by seemingly wilful obscurity. It would be very well suited to presentation in an art installation.
Clare was a “minor nature poet” (ouch) of the early nineteenth century whose works were rediscovered a hundred or so years after his death and celebrated as a poetical resistance against encroaching industrialisation, the centralisation of authority and culture, and the erosion of the rural traditions. He was also haunted by ‘melancholia’ through his life, and evidently had a number of severe breakdowns and depressive episodes, some triggered by personal tragedy. Andrew Kotting’s film factors these elements into a blend to create its haunted, evocative style. Shot in stark digital black and white, By Our Selves begins with the lone figure of  John Clare (Toby Jones), forlorn and slightly frightened looking, as he walks among the trees of Epping Forest, haunted by auditory hallucinations. (“The forest produces auditory hallucinations, these are paraphrenias,” one of the hallucinations says in the voice of poet Iain Sinclair; “there’s nothing actually there”). There are also fragments of Clare’s own poetry, the sounds of bells and drums, and blurred flashes of people in children’s animal masks.
In 1841, a scrawled caption tells us, Clare left the asylum he was interned in and walked from Epping Forest to Northhampton, some 80 miles north, in search of a lost love.
Although ostensibly ‘set’ in 1841, the film is laced with anachronisms from the start: cars pass the macbre processional figures that accompany Clare as he hikes. Sometimes film crew are left in the shot or participants talk about John Clare but also about the making of the film we are watching. This will strike many as too damn studenty and self-conscious by half but By Our Selves roots itself in the premise of broken time. Where the film takes place matters most, and the When is blurred by the subject’s state of mind. John Clare, through his madness and melancholia, is haunted by the future of the English countryside and what will be lost of it to the past. And so, the sinister note struck by the sight of a CCTV camera bolted to the upper limb of a tree, the oddness of his sometimes using a typewriter. Presumably this is in part inspired by both the poet Sinclair and wizardly author Alan Moore, who are featured in conversation, talking about Clare, Northampton and their mutual fascination with Broken Time.
One other notable element of the tapestry is the fact that narration is provided by actor Freddie Jones, Toby’s father, who also played Clare in a BBC production in the 1970s. He sometimes steps back into the role here too. This film is like a palimpsest under an x-ray with various distinct layers confused into one. Many will be bored by it, some will hate it, and a lucky few will be in just the right mood and utterly compelled.




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