At first glance, Swandown is something of an oddity. It’s a film concerning the journey of two men: the film’s director Andrew Kotting and writer Ian Sinclair, as they travel from Hastings to Hackney on a swan shaped pedalo called Edith. This description conjures up screwball comedy rather than a thought provoking lyrical documentary. And yet, Swandown is indeed a documentary and also the most unique of modern epics.
The film begins with fleeting images of the pedalo being untethered from the bay at night, sparking the first strange motions of this absurd odyssey. In Kotting’s opening poetic meditation on the meaning of his journey, in which the two men will become ‘flesh radios’ and share their souls with the soul of the swan, there is twinge of pretension. However, this was alleviated almost immediately by one of the film’s most exceptional features: its light touches of humour, an element evident in Kotting’s previous works, such as Galivant (1996) and This Our Still Life (2011). Kotting and Sinclair’s musings, exchanges and chemistry shape the film’s tone, which invites the audience into the surreal situation with great zest.
Stylistically, the film is bold and dynamic as Kotting uses multiple techniques to create a dazzling collage. He combines digitally recorded footage from multiple perspectives, intercutting this main thread with found footage from British home movies and heritage productions and, most interestingly, utilising specific sound bites from other films. The references to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982) in particular are comically knowing, while also acting as odes to great artistic odysseys of the past.
While for some may feel the film ends almost jarringly once the ultimate destination is reached, Swandown is a film about the experience of journey. It is a modern odyssey through a lost Britain that feels like another world, in another time. Touches of the medieval past meld with the otherness of an alien landscape, thanks to the film’s unabashed visual palette. The journey leads inevitably into the film’s heart of darkness…Hackney, where the ghosts of the past linger in a dystopian space of barbed wire and barriers, giving the area a distinctive feeling of Orwell’s 1984, rather than London 2012. The audience are left to consider what has been lost in the ‘cloud of 21st century consciousness.’
Swandown is a unique and moving poem that glides gracefully whilst offering profound reflections on our modern identity. It is a journey worth experiencing and savouring.
Swandown is out now on DVD and Blu-ray.
Matthew has awarded Swandown four Torches of Truth