Far more ambitious than his docs about Joy Division and Radiohead, Grant Gee’s film essay about WG Sebald’s book ‘The Rings of Saturn’ – a mesmerising, melancholy account of a series of walks around Suffolk – fails to find a visual metaphor for its philosophical peregrinations. Early on, Lise Patt, Sebald scholar, explains how the deliberately degraded black and white images, which punctuate the text, create complex layers of associative meaning, arresting its linear journey and forcing us to retrace both our steps and thoughts. In stark contrast, the granular monochrome of Gee’s film images is merely prosaic and illustrative.
More evocative are the mellifluous readings by actor Jonathan Pryce, interleaved here with commentaries from some of those who have followed in the Austrian emigré’s footsteps: Robert Macfarlane (author of ‘The Wild Places’), artist Tacita Dean and poet Andrew Motion. Their contributions tease out the unique quality of a book in which a chance meeting with the gardener at Somerleyton House can segue seamlessly into a sad, revealing reminiscence about British bombers taking off from the nearby air base and the 732,000 tons of bombs they dropped on German citizens.
Those unfamiliar with Sebald’s book will find few points of entry, but film references pop up unexpectedly: Katie Mitchell compares Sebald’s prose painting of being adrift on Benacre Broad with Tarkovksy’s vision of The Zone in ‘Stalker’; Rick Moody, whose novel ‘The Ice Storm’ was filmed by Ang Lee, marvels at Sebald’s eye for uncanny, subliminal connections. Least successful are Gee’s attempts to capture Sebald’s elusive, self-mythologising persona, which merely end with his wandering off the point.