The Nine Muses

The Nine Muses


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

It's not the best start to a review to say: I don’t exactly know how to describe this film. But in this case it’s meant as a compliment. The Nine Muses isn’t quite like anything I’ve ever seen before. And if it doesn’t make an entirely satisfying cinematic experience, you can’t fault the desire to try something different.

The theme is the experience of those who migrated to Britain in the years after World War Two. Chiefly from Asia and the Caribbean, they came to a country which in terms of both climate and culture was a world away from the ones they had known.

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It would be easy to create a conventional documentary on such a fascinating subject, based around archive footage and ‘talking heads’ reminiscence. But director Akomfrah is clearly aiming for something more lyrical, impressionistic and – as the title makes clear – mythical.

The film opens with shots of a landscape in the depths of winter. A series of captions informs the viewer that the Nine Muses were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. The film’s running time is divided into nine chapters, one for each Muse (Comedy, Poetry, Dance etc). But it also references Homer’s Odyssey, placing the film in one of the oldest genres in Western literature – the journey saga. Much of the film is set in the stark, eerily beautiful snowscape. Two characters, silent and so swathed in protective clothing that their race and gender remain unknown, move through it without ever quite meeting or connecting. Meanwhile a young black man wanders, alone and silent, through a modern city.

These journeys are intercut with a range of archive footage about the immigrant experience in Britain. The ‘narrative’ comprises a range of work by authors from the Western and Eastern traditions – everyone from Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett to Li Po and Rabindranath Tagore. The soundtrack is equally eclectic, ranging from Schubert to Indian folk.

If all this sounds way too experimental and avant-garde – well, there’s no denying it’s a disorienting experience for anyone expecting a conventional storyline or characters. But cinema doesn’t always have to be about that, and nor should it. Akomfrah is more interested in getting the audience to feel the sense of rootlessness, wandering and alienation that comes with the experience of immigration rather than present them with a history lesson – though the footage is well-chosen when it comes to illustrating the hostility and prejudice that the new arrivals had to deal with.

The readings, likewise, are not about immigration specifically, but are all about journeys and transitions, leaving one way of life behind and embracing another – as well as a lot more besides. Some work better than others, and there’s no doubt that the measured pacing makes for occasional longeurs. In addition, filming the ‘snowscape’ scenes in Alaska (the film is the first in a series of three, and the others will use similar locations) adds another, perhaps unnecessary, layer of disorientation as it’s fairly obviously not anywhere in Britain.

Perhaps the idea was to heighten the sense of strangeness and dislocation, reminding the audience that, to the new arrivals, England seemed as strange and forbidding as this landscape does to us. But I can’t help feeling that choosing somewhere like Snowdonia or the far north of Scotland would have produced the same effect and provided more of a cultural reference point for the audience.

It’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, having more the feel of a gallery installation than a feature film. But if you’re after something a bit different it’s nowhere near as pretentious as Daft Punks’s interminable Electroma (which also featured two anonymous characters, er, walking a lot) and its closest relative is (as Akomfrah himself has said) “existential science fiction”. I certainly found myself thinking of Tarkovsky’s Solaris while watching it. It also has echoes of visual essay films like Koyaanisqatsi. But, in truth, The Nine Muses is a genuine original. And, as far as I’m concerned, that’s no bad thing.

Reviewed on: 12 Oct 2010
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A poetic exploration of mass immigration in postwar Britain.
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Director: John Akomfrah

Writer: John Akomfrah

Starring: Trevor Mathison, David Lawson

Year: 2010

Runtime: 90 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK

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