This film is an experimental mixture of drama and documentary about the 19th century nature poet John Clare. The film is loosely based on Iain Sinclair’s book Edge of the Orison: In the Traces of John Clare’s “Journey Out of Essex”.
John Clare (1793 – 1864), a minor English poet in his time, has over the years become a cult literary figure. He wrote poems about his love of nature, but also polemics about the impact of legislative changes where Parliament enclosed open spaces; transferring what was once common land to private ownership. By the age of 30 Clare was experiencing difficulties with his mental health, where he believed he had multiple personalities including those of famous people such as Shakespeare, Lord Byron, Wellington, Nelson and a prize fighter. This breakdown led to Clare’s benefactors having him admitted to the High Bridge asylum in Epping Forest, where he spent four years. Clare eventually escaped the asylum, walking back to his home town in Northamptonshire.
By Our Selves follows the trail of Clare’s walk back. Iain Sinclair narrates the film, meeting various Clare enthusiasts on the way, such as the writer / occultist / anarchist Alan Moore. Clare is played by both Toby Jones and his father Freddie Jones. Toby Jones portrays Clare physically; he is filmed in black and white, dressed in bowler hat and smock coat, wandering through the landscapes of middle England. Toby Jones does a good job of portraying Clare’s inner and outer confusion, conveying a sense of displacement in both time and space. The actor’s father Freddie Jones recites certain Clare poems, and providing a further psycho-geographical ripple, in that Freddie Jones has acted as John Clare on a television drama in the 1970s.
As is the tradition in psycho-geographical literature, the film is ambulatory, with observance of the current geography weirdly conveying associations and connections with historic conditions and events. The message of the films seems to be the plight of John Clare has come to represent the plight of all people in all times; as he journeyed the 19th century landscape through his various deluded selves, so the film makers see the parts of England travelled as it is now, representing the opposing interests of timeless dualities, for example, the natural word against industry, the common man against capital (ownership). Don’t forget, this film is an experiment.
By Our Selves has a melancholic feel at times, at other times playful and with dark humour. For parts of the film Iain Sinclair wears a sheep’s mask, and an actor dresses in a straw costume (referencing The Wicker Man, metaphor of human sacrifice and the pagan world view of creation / destruction and the cyclical nature of time). These props provide further nods to the traditions of English folk story, and more generally the plight of the common man through the ages.
An interesting film, with interesting subject matter, that also manages to entertain.
By Our Selves is out now on Blu-Ray and VOD, released by Soda Pictures.