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Robinson in Space (1997)


Main image of Robinson in Space (1997)
35mm, colour, 81 mins
DirectorPatrick Keiller
Production CompanyBBC Films
 British Film Institute
ProducerKeith Griffiths
ScreenplayPatrick Keiller
PhotographyPatrick Keiller

Narrator: Paul Scofield

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A man and his gay friend, Robinson, are recruited as spies. They set out on seven trips around England - to the west and east of London; Oxford and Bristol; the West Midlands; Birmingham and Liverpool; Manchester and Hull; Scarborough and Whitby; and Blackpool and Sellafield.

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Robinson in Space (d. Patrick Keiller, 1996) begins with Robinson's unseen narrator quoting the 1960s French radical Situationist Raoul Vaneigem demanding that "a bridge between imagination and reality must be built." It ends with Robinson's disappearance and the narrator declaring that "I cannot tell you where Robinson finally found his Utopia." In between is the search for that Utopia in the industrial landscape of England, and an attempt to bridge the gap between two worlds.

A mysterious advertising agency has tasked Robinson with investigating the 'problem of England'. He and the narrator embark on a series of seven journeys across England, inspired by Daniel Defoe's Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain, based on Defoe's travels as a spy in the 1720s. Robinson brings to the journey the same restless sensibility encountered in Keiller's previous film, London (1994), unearthing the unlikely histories of manor houses and ports alike. He discovers the French poet Rimbaud's residence in Reading, and the site of Dracula's mansion at Carfax. Everywhere, he finds traces of Defoe himself: the houses in which he wrote and the Bristol pub in which he met Alexander Selkirk, the model for Robinson's namesake Crusoe.

Along the way, the film presents us with an initially bewildering flurry of industrial and economic statistics: the productivity of the United Kingdom's manufacturing and aerospace industries; the ownership and throughput of coastal ports. In the process we discover an England in which, contrary to popular wisdom, manufacturing and trade are not in decline but healthy: the apparent poverty and desolation is the result of power. Here are two worlds: the unseen world of England's prosperity, and the visible world of England's decline. Prosperity, however, also relies on the unsavoury exercise of power, as Robinson finds privatised prisons and the manufacturers of handcuffs and leg-irons for export.

Like London, the film layers static images, music, narration and quotation. At the beginning and end of the film, we hear Allan Gray's haunting prelude from A Matter of Life and Death (d. Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger, 1946), a film made at the very beginning of the postwar period of English optimism, whose hero traverses the gap between the worlds of wartime reality and the afterlife. Robinson seems to be telling us that though the foundations of the world are material, reality itself is beautiful only insofar as our imagination transforms it.

Danny Birchall

*This film is available on BFI DVD.

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Video Clips
1. Latterday Levellers (2:17)
2. Oxford (2:34)
3. Export achievements (2:30)
4. The key to Utopia (2:48)
Original Poster
Production stills
Gallivant (1996)
London (1994)
Griffiths, Keith (1947-)
Keiller, Patrick (1950-)
Scofield, Paul (1922-2008)
They Started Here