‘Two Years at Sea’ has enigmatic appeal, but only for so long

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Two Years at Sea
Directed by Ben Rivers
UK, 2011

The most appealing aspect of video artist Ben Rivers’ debut feature is its intentionally grainy, monochrome 16mm cinematography, providing a dreamy quality to a curiously beautiful visual aesthetic. Two Years at Sea immerses the viewer in the gentle rhythms of the life of hermit Jake Williams, who lives a life of solitude in a remote forest in the north of Scotland. Free of words bar Williams’ occasional mutterings and lyrics in recorded music he plays, the film slowly showcases the man’s activity and creates a unique portrait of a lifestyle of extreme solitude; we follow his daily routines, his chores in his derelict home, his wandering about the local land, his fishing aboard an inflatable raft and even his slow drifting off to sleep.

The insight into this extreme lifestyle is initially very interesting, as are the film’s very long takes and tranquil pace and atmosphere. This pace lasts the entire film, however, and tranquillity soon leads to tedium. The documentary is shapeless and adrift, and while its poetic beauty is admirable and effective in small bursts, as a film of a nearly 90 minute length it becomes a soporific endurance test. Additionally, while its insight into the various workings of a particular hermit lifestyle creates this realised portrait, it is a portrait that feels lacking as the film’s tiring progression increasingly raises questions regarding the man. The meditative compositions only provide so much satisfaction, and queries regarding Williams’ background and his reasons for living this way become far more appealing prospects for attention. These questions are not answered, nor are they ever posed; what you have instead is enigmatic contemplation that cannot fully sustain enigmatic evocation.

– Josh Slater-Williams

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