By Our Selves (12A)

Directed by Andrew Kotting
Picturehouse, Liverpool
8th & 9th November 2015

Reviewed by Colin Serjent

During this compelling film about the 19th century country poet John Clare, which perfectly captures his eccentricity, a 1970 BBC female programme announcer declares that he "was a minor nature poet who went mad." This is repeated two or three times again later on, as if to emphasis he wasn't!

Clare was an outsider to a large extent in the Romantic age - a working class rural-based poet with a history of mental illness. The film explores his escape from an Essex asylum and a four-day walk to Northamptonshire in pursuit of his first great love, Mary. A major problem of his aim was that she had died some years before.

The walk takes place in a modern setting, including the nauseating and ear-shattering noise of motorway traffic, after he leaves the peace and tranquility of Epping Forest, an ancient woodland based in south-east England. The sound of birdsong rapidly disappears....

Clare, impressively played by Toby Jones, the son of noted British actor Freddie Jones, who also appears in the film, does not utter a word throughout the eighty minutes. Clare's words are read by Freddie, who himself played the poet in a 1970 episode of the BBC arts series Omnibus, which is briefly shown. Jones senior, aged 88, still has the ability to captivate with his phraseology.

Impressively shot by cinematographer Nick Gordon Smith in an amalgam of black and grey, with occasional snatches of colour, he captures the intricate details and abstract composition of the leaves, branches and trees of the forest.

A straw bear, with director Andrew Kotting playing the part, accompanied Clare on part of his quest. The straw bear - a man clad in straw - is part of an old Fenland custom to celebrate the beginning of the agricultural year.

Some view Clare's predicament as a metaphor for change - a folk poet protesting at agricultural exploitation. The modern landscape is symbolished by the sight of security cameras attached to trees.

The journey also includes the appearance of folk-revival performers and musicians in animal masks traversing along roads.

A notable quote by Clare used in the film is "I long for scenes where man hath never trod." He was a lost soul in an unforgiving world.

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