Two Years at Sea (2011) – Film Review

Movie review of Ben Rivers's black and white film Two Years At Sea

Watching artist Ben Rivers’s film Two Years At Sea is like being transposed into an Ansel Adams landscape for 88 quietly glorious minutes. When thinking of experimental cinema the tendency can be to imagine some sort of anarchic approach, bright colours and electricity but the beauty of this film is in its simplicity.

Filmed on 16mm (blown up to 35mm) with next to no dialogue or story, Rivers shoots the rituals of subject Jake Williams who lives at peace in the solitude of the Scottish highlands. Resembling a modern day John Muir, Williams goes about his routine a solemn and noble figure within his pastoral setting. The audience, a mere onlooker into his humble world, is left to absorb the seasons captured on celluloid. This is primitive film-making but no less ambitious because of it.

The grain and impurities of the black and white 16mm film emit a dazzling cinematic feel to this striking documentary of nature that forces you to appreciate not only the scenery but Rivers’ craft and ingenuity. With archaic camera equipment in hand the artist accompanied Williams on three of his excursions to this far-flung habitat with only a sound-recordist in tow and it is this unassuming combination of image and sound that allows you to drift into Jake’s isolation.

A dichotomy between the environment and the technicality of film-making forms, making this work at once beautiful and reflexive. With its extenuated pauses and lack of discernible plot a celestial, contemplative air is created. Prolonged shots last longer and longer, extending the silences, but also enhancing the sense of artistry. Snow falling from tree tops and a kettle whistling became points of immersive action as Rivers exercises his freedom in experimentation. (Disclaimer: this may not be a film for those with short attention spans).

Coupled with the cinematography, it is a mysticism that makes these scenes so curiously engaging. As a protagonist Jake is a wry character even though we never hear him speak more than a frail whisper. The motives behind his isolation are never alluded to, but that’s not what is important. The overwhelming feeling is to slide in to a tranquil haze. At one point Jake fashions a floating platform to fish off of; the camera pans out as he simply lingers on the water. You cannot help but be hypnotised.


Best performance: Jake Williams. It’s all him.
Best line: *Kettle whistles* – as there’s no dialogue to choose from!
Best scene: When Jake’s cat eerily breaks the fourth-wall and stares at the camera or the surreal shot of a caravan stuck up a tree. Still trying to work that one out – answers on a postcard please.

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