Two Years at Sea (2011)


With the use of 16mm cameras director Ben Rivers shows us the mundane life of outsider Jake Williams. Jake is a hermit who lives somewhere in Aberdeenshire in the middle of nowhere, he has a sprawling ram shackled cottage and a caravan and spends his time living off the land and sleeping. We see Jake’s daily routine consisting of washing in his homemade shower, listening to music and making things like a raft to use. The camera unobtrusively observes Jake, generally in the tradition of static long shots and medium long shots with few close ups. The only close ups we experience are those of photographs of people we assume are Jake’s family and strange paraphernalia that clutters his house. These objects hint at an interesting man but we never really get to know Jake as a character.

Rivers is an artist who has worked with Jake previously in his short film This is my Land and tends to focus on real people that have chosen to be outsiders. This is a fascinating topic and there are some interesting underlying explorations in play throughout Two Years at Sea. We see Jake’s interaction with the natural landscape through all seasons and it is this relationship that is at the core of the film. With practically no dialogue and a lack of context to put this scenario in, we as the viewer are challenged to make sense of this strangely content individual and his lifestyle.

The shot compositions are beautiful and the use of 16mm adds a grainy almost surreal quality. One moment in particular, where we see Jake’s caravan magically hoisted into the tree tops, raises the question of whether this is in fact a straight forward documentary or not, perhaps this isn’t vérité after all? However, there are only a couple of moments like this and the rest of the time we drift with Jake and the pace is very slow. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but the combination of factors such as the incredibly slow pace, lack of information, lack of dialogue and a lack of personality mean that Two Years at Sea is quite difficult viewing. It is rather hypnotic in parts and the lack of information does make the whole thing intriguing but it is far too long a film to be able to be enjoyable in this form.

The moments where Jake enjoys music injects some much needed life into the film and reminds the viewer that Jake is still connected to civilisation in a way, which is slightly disappointing. With a lot of screen time devoted to the ‘protagonist’ sleeping one wonders what exactly the director is trying to say, if anything at all. The problem with films like this is the creators think they are far too clever and focus on the meaningful underlying messages rather than the fundamentals of film, how to be entertaining. A film that successfully achieves all the elements, and so much more, that Two Years at Sea attempts to tackle is Le Quattro Volte (2010) and it also manages to be thoroughly entertaining as well. Le Quattro Volte proved that dialogue is not necessary and a slow pace and everyday routines can be extremely entertaining. Unfortunately Two Years at Sea is a rather inferior film in comparison. While there are some fascinating elements and visually stunning work here Two Years at Sea is not a journey I would like to repeat.

Director: Ben Rivers
Featuring: Jake Williams
Runtime: 88 mins
Country: UK

Film Rating: ★★½☆☆

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