Two Years at Sea: a textured retreat

19 November 2012

Out on DVD today, 19 November 2012.

Two Years at Sea (2011), Ben Rivers’ witty debut feature film, is a portrait of real-life hermit Jake Williams, who lives out a self-contained existence in rural Aberdeenshire, an idyll for which he saved by working as a sea merchant for two years. Living at a comfortable remove from social commitments, Jake’s solitary existence presents both Rivers and his audience with the narrative challenge of establishing and maintaining interest without the drama and exchanges of conventional daily life. Having worked with Williams – to whom he was introduced through a friend – for the 14-minute 2004 short This Is My Land, Rivers is able to confront his conceptual challenge by placing full trust in his protagonist.

Documenting Jake’s routine in beguiling 16mm, Rivers achieves a fine balance between detailing the intimacies of his subject within a more contemplative framework, with handheld close-ups countered by lengthy passages of real serenity. Rather than try and forge a character before allowing us into the more universal habits of his life, Rivers knows that personality, and even drama, emerges from the daily mundane: far earlier than we might expect, he cuts to an image of Jake showering, dispensing there and then with firstly, any embarrassment for subject or audience, and secondly, any prior assumptions about a hermit’s domestic cleanliness.

The film also extends Rivers’ fascination with self-sustained living. As Jake saws off a tree branch, his grey-white beard an apparent constant in an otherwise varying tableau of images, it isn’t hard to imagine this might be what Santa Claus gets up to for eleven months of the year. After an expository opening third, in which agitated jump-cuts and a necessarily cluttered mise-en-scène are juxtaposed with wider, more considered shots, Jake lies down for a nap. Rivers frames him from outside his caravan, looking in so that we see Jake, at rest in slumber, visually enveloped by the outside foliage reflected in the window. The natural surroundings no doubt provide a calming presence; but the shot might also point to this way of life having its own pressures and burdens – those that come with having to provide for oneself even when removed from a more immediate city life.

What follows is majestic. An empty frame observes that point at which the forest’s canopy meets the sky above, into which ascends Jake’s caravan, which, having provided its owner the means of portably existing away from the world at large, cheekily defies gravity and seeks attention within the frame as soon as we dare to leave it. It’s a breathtaking moment of quiet euphoria that brings to the already personable study a Herzogian edge, expanded upon thereafter with the introduction of mood-enhancing Indian folk music and a long take in which Jake enjoys the simple pleasures of floating across a lake on a man-made raft. Its sustained final shot concludes an extraordinarily textured work.

[Originally posted on 4 April 2012 at Front Row Reviews.]