London Symphony

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Alex Barrett

Starring

Adam Hickey Pamela Hutchinson Phil Abel

Anticipation.

London gets ready for its close-up.

Enjoyment.

A rapturous, compelling and inventive snapshot of the British capital.

In Retrospect.

Small issues aside, Barrett has pulled off a bold experiment.

Filmmaker Alex Barrett delivers a gorgeous, poetic ode to this bustling and diverse city.

The “symphony” film is a form which harks back to cinema’s earliest days. These convulsive visual collages offered portraits of cities or landscapes, and often arrived with suitably dynamic orchestral scores. Filmmaker Alex Barrett has decided to exhume this obscure mode for a new generation. Crucially, he has attempted to recapture exactly what made these films great in the first place rather than souping-up the template for modern eyes.

London Symphony attempts to emulate the experience of watching a movie from the silent era, and it works to achieve that aim by presenting its images in crisp monochrome. The film is split into four segments, each of which covers a broad aspect of cultural life in the capital. Initially, the editing appears random, as if we’re watching a photo slideshow of dismal cityscapes, but then a subtle through-line emerges. Barrett daisy-chains from one subject to the next sometimes through literal links (shots of paper rubbish on the street connect to a newspaper print shop) but sometimes just through the formation of the visuals.

As with early classics like Dziga Vertov’s The Man With a Movie Camera or Walther Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, Barrett subtly meddles with the boundary between documentary and fiction. There’s an element of scripted reality to a couple of moments involving people captured reading on the Underground or relaxing in a park. James McWilliam’s superb score tips a hat to the churning, looping likes of Michael Nyman and Philip Glass and lends the film a driving sense of momentum.

There’s a chapter which focuses on the more commercial aspect of the capital which is less interesting, while subculture, nightlife and diversity (London’s alternative scene) don’t get much of a look in. But, as it promises in an opening inter-title, this is very much a film with one eye on the past and the other on the future.

Published 1 Sep 2017

Anticipation.

London gets ready for its close-up.

Enjoyment.

A rapturous, compelling and inventive snapshot of the British capital.

In Retrospect.

Small issues aside, Barrett has pulled off a bold experiment.

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