Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The London Olympics 2012 have variously been billed as a modern event, a British event, a cultural event. In the rush to co-opt approved ideas, something of the character of London and its surroundings has been cut out, swept aside. Swandown sees director Andrew Kötting and poet Iain Sinclair set out to recapture something of that immemorial English spirit, steeped in real artistic heritage. What better way to do it than to travel from Hastings to the city itself in a joyfully liberated swan shaped pedalo.

This is a journey through hidden waterways and times long past, where fact and fiction blur. Famous paintings are recaptured by the camera, our ungainly craft drifting nonchalantly through them. A sullen Ophelia immerses herself beside a riverbank, though unlike Millais' model she seems at least to be spared the indignity of hypothermia. Later there are contemporary legends: Alan Moore, 'writer and prophet', pedalling along a canal beside Stewart Lee. Orator Marcia Farquhar declaims snatches of the story of Leda, immediately suspicious of the reason for their presence. Moor muses on the conception of Jesus; did the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, perform as Zeus did?

Copy picture

Echoing Homer's Odyssey and also the procession of the Olympic torch, Swandown happens in fits and starts, sometimes achingly slow, intermittently brilliant. It's appallingly badly filmed and all the post-modern reflexivity in the world can't salvage that, but neverheless it has moments of real beauty. It also captures very well the contrast between a lyrical, organic legacy and an era of artificiality where even art has been reconstructed as something that cannot look at itself. The image of a lone swan butting against barriers as a black helicopter wheels overhead will stay with you.

Edith the swan; Sitwell her tiny counterpart; these are figures of modern legend. Their gentle progress, at times remote and amateurish, becomes strangely compelling viewing. Their human riders and the stories those riders carry, the ghosts of Sinclair's books, are drifting like Ophelia, ephemeral yet eternal. Ultimately the film's problems are part of its charm. There's a particular English rubbishness far more endearing than that nation's celebrated victories. It throws that glorious artistic legacy into sharp relief, in the best ways. Ride it on out like a bird in the sky ways. It's a modest triumph.

Reviewed on: 19 Jul 2012
Share this with others on...
A documentary maker and a historian seek to uncover England's secrets as they travel through its waterways in a swan-shaped pedalo.
Amazon link

Director: Andrew Kötting

Starring: Andrew Kötting, Iain Sinclair, Stewart Lee, Alan Moore

Year: 2012

Runtime: 93 minutes

Country: UK


EastEnd 2012

Search database: