Acclaimed New Zealand photographer Gavin Hipkins’ debut feature-length film, Erewhon, is an ethereal and meditative little wonder. A stylised adaptation of Samuel Butler’s satirical 1872 novel of the same name, Hipkins has paired a stream of evocative moving images with a narration from the book, superbly performed by Mia Blake.
The film begins with some kind of digger, lumbering and grunting as it rolls over and shifts the earth beneath it. From there it flows across a vast range of landscapes, flora and fauna, abstract visualisations, and machinery both run-down and in the process of gorgeous operation. Hipkins’ cinematography, at times stark, at times beguiling, at times delicate, is given space to linger and breathe. By removing all traditional filmic elements of character and mise en scène, Hipkins turns his cinema into a thoughtful, reflective space, forcing the audience into becoming a kind of medium between his own visions, and those of Butler’s prophetic text.
Butler’s novel was written as a satire of Victorian society, questioning the roles of machines in society, post-industrial revolution, while critiquing social attitudes and structures through its description of newly discovered civilisation of Erewhon. Though Hipkins’ adaptation initially touches on ideas of immigration - speaking to colonial New Zealand - and briefly explores ideas about vegetarianism, crime and illness, for the most part the film draws from the novel’s Book of Machines. It all feels remarkably relevant and the Erewhonian utopia (distopia?) reads like a cautionary tale or philosophical treatise about the hypothesised technological singularity. There are big ideas at play here, but Hipkins’ pacing allows us to mull them over while his images gently prod us in the direction of certain conclusions without ever becoming didactic.
Blake’s narration is exceptional; maintaining a dry, hypnotic, rhythm, redolent of the text’s Victorian roots, while subtly altering her tone to imbue Hipkins’ canvas of imagery with a world of feeling and subtext.
It’s a tribute to Blake’s performance, the excellent scripting, and the combination of Rachel Shearer’s mercurial score and Ben Sinclair’s understated sound design, that the film never feels overly slow or boring. Instead, these elements elevate Hipkins’ already stunning cinematography of our world into a portrait of its past, present and future; both real and imagined.
D: Gavin Hipkins (NZ, 2014, 92 minutes)
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