Thursday, 22 June 2017

Swan's way: "Edith Walks"

The last time we caught up with Andrew Kötting - British cinema's great perambulator, forever mapping the margins and marginalised - it was with 2015's In Our Selves, where he followed in the wayward footsteps of troubled 19th century poet John Clare. With his latest Edith Walks, we find Kötting stepping even further back into native history by mirroring the movements of one Edith Swan-Neck, an 11th century wanderer (and wonderer) who reportedly travelled from Waltham Abbey to St. Leonards-on-Sea on foot in the wake of the Battle of Hastings to recover her husband King Harold's corpse from the battlefield. We get an expressionist taster of this turbulent moment in time from Forgotten the Queen, an accompanying animated short composed by Kötting's daughter Eden, in which screen and viewer are subjected to a barrage of arrows, found sounds, crayon-red blood and a lingering scepticism as to the militaristic ways of men. The main feature, a rough-edged travelogue, joins Kötting as he and several members of his established coterie (writer Iain Sinclair and sound artist Jem Finer among them) accompany a new Edith (honey-voiced singer Claudia Barton) in recreating this journey as it was circa summer 2016.

Although these pilgrims' progress is marked out onscreen by regular Ordinance Survey references, this is very much filmmaking on the fly. The first scene shows this motley crew apparently breaking into the Abbey via a sidedoor, and we consequently hear them being told off by a security guard for rolling camera without the appropriate permits. (Given that we witness Ms. Barton all but dryhumping statues of Harold and Edith at various points, the guard's concerns would seem legit.) As in By Our Selves - which marked something of a fork in the road of Kötting's previously autobiographical filmography, turning him back towards the past, and towards the lives of others - there's an amusing incongruity inherent in watching figures clad in period dress wafting through a Greater London of Prets and Routemaster buses. Kötting's merry pranksters schlep down through Greenwich, getting temporarily waylaid by a pair of jovial constables for drumming in public, and then - between cutaways to archive footage of primary school kids recreating scenes from the Bayeux Tapestry - push on through the outer reaches of the M25 towards the coast.

En route, it soon becomes apparent that Kötting is pursuing a path rarely travelled in recent British cinema - that strain of art-school avant-gardism that previously yielded Derek Jarman's experiments with film form and the English landscape - and the director's playfulness makes it easy to tag along. Finer and that errant drummer, David Aylward, carry in their wake a homemade contraption that, with each step forwards, generates a rhythmic percussion from flattened Foster's cans. (The spirit of the amber nectar does indeed hover over certain stretches, but then walking, like filming, is thirsty work.) An ostensibly serious mid-walk discussion between Sinclair and Alan Moore as to poor Harold's fate is enlivened by a cut to a beardy sound recordist, wearing a Viking helmet for the occasion. In terms of 2017 theatrical releases, granted, there may be none more niche: increasingly, Kötting seems to have meandered into cinemas through the fire door, with films that really have no economic business being on the same listings pages as the latest emissions from the DC and Marvel universes. Still, this latest's a brisk, invigorating stroll - just over an hour, taking in Eden's short - and one that has a funny way of making its particular history come alive.

Edith Walks opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.   

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