In Swandown, Andrew Kötting, the film’s director, aimed to create “[a] poetic film-diary about landscape and culture.” In that it seems he succeeded, but whether the end-result is worth watching is debatable. The film follows Kötting as he peddles 160 miles along the Thames in a swan pedalo, alongside co-writer Iain Sinclair. Unfortunately, their journey from Hastings to Hackney fails to deliver more than an a “whacky” idea.
The main problem is that the film is dull. In the opening sequence, Kötting and Sinclair spend a short eternity taking the pedalo out, fighting against waves, eventually giving up and waiting for the tide. When they finally cast off, the unsteady camera, as it tracks the equally unsteady pedalo bobbing towards the river-mouth, can’t help but produce stomach-turning queasiness on the part of the audience.
The only major difference between Swandown and those BBC2-specials where middle-agers travel down a river drinking wine is that James May isn’t in Swandown. Many famous-names do feature though. Artist Marcia Farquhar rambles irrelevantly about the sea. Comedian Stewart Lee and graphic-novelist Alan Moore discuss ancient mythology, before joking about audiences misreading the film: “You can’t leave things open to interpretation nowadays.” But Swandown does; in my estimation, a video-diary shouldn’t require celebrity-cameos to make it interesting.
Nevertheless, Swandown isn’t totally awful. In conveying countryside-charm, it is visually interesting and, at one point, even funny. Fireflies hover in the background, dew-soaked cobwebs glint in the foreground of pillow-shots, and kaleidoscopic water/light interplay adorns the poetry read aloud by Sinclair. But it’s not all starry-eyed. My personal highlight was a long take of both presenters drifting past a cow field. With its rear end facing the camera, one cow begins to defecate as it enters the frame, and continues throughout the traverse, much to the hilarity of Kötting and Sinclair. It’s a tasteless moment, but easily the funniest thing in the film.
Swandown manages occasional depth, most effectively by contrasting the countryside the pedalo passes through with London. The inhospitable inhabitants of Hackney cannot tell a swan from a duck and would happily throw stones at either. Countryside locals seem supportive and keen to chat (although most conversations must be prearranged). Rather than simply comparing rural to urban, Kötting juxtaposes Hastings with Hackney for the sake of his story. The pedalo – nicknamed Edith– is Swandown’s protagonist. The further Edith ventures from Swan-Lake, the less she is at home. Olympics notwithstanding, Kötting must have planned to end with Edith’s reunion with the Queen’s swans of the Upper Thames.
Swans are cultural icons, and Swandown is steeped in culture. From Virginia Woolf to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, Swandown references art’s relationship with water in a way which film seldom does. It is littered with excerpts from swan-themed-literature (especially Yeats’ Leda and the Swan), radio-broadcasts and audio-snippets from Werner Herzog explaining the making of Fitzcarraldo. But all these things are merely citations and not embedded in the film’s narrative. Despite its literary-awareness, Swandown’s intertextuality only actually demonstrates that Kötting reads widely and watches a lot of film and television.
Although the film appears not to take itself seriously, I’m uncertain this is really the case. On the one hand, the producer’s comments have been left in, like the editor’s notes (my favourite of which is: “Oh shit, battery!”) Further, Kötting’s motive for making Swandown – “The ridiculousness of the gesture” – seems whimsical to say the least. Even if the self-mocking deserves kudos, it doesn’t transform Swandown into a good film. Rather it suggests Swandown acknowledges that it isn’t great.
Kötting is clearly fond of documenting his life, perhaps to the point of vanity, but Swandown just isn’t interesting. It’s an overly-pretentious video-tour of the Thames, posing as a miniature Odyssey. Although well-shot, and sometimes fun, the film is, overall, lacklustre.