17 August 2010

Meanwhile City

Romantic reminisces of a long-gone Victorian London seem to have littered my childhood.  However they were not of the clean and prettified sets of 1950s and '60s musical film productions, but something darker and more mysterious altogether.  Give me the dark, cobblestone alleys of Stevenson's London in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, give me the haze of pessimism that surrounded Conrad's London in Heart of Darkness.  I find myself obsessed with a Victorian London that is no doubt romantic and idealized, however is perhaps darker and more lived-in than most would have.  

In reality Victorian London did not conform to the rosy-cheeked Pre-Raphaelite vision, rather it was a overcrowded, poverty-stricken city of extremes.  Swimming in the River Thames of today is filthy to say the least, however in an age when London was famed for the Great Stink caused by the Summer heat, it was a inevitable death sentence.  Repression, child labour, and not to mention, rather basic hygiene practices, meant that it was not the dreamy landscape that is often portrayed.  That is not to say that I find myself dreaming of the veracity and dirty realities of Victorian London, but rather that I often think of a less prettified vision.       

I like the idea of landscapes and settings that are lived-in - whether that be aboard the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars, or the Five Points set in Gangs of New York, or indeed the Victorian Gothic steampunk setting that is Meanwhile City in Franklyn... 

Meanwhile City is presented as an overcrowded steampunk fantasy, taking elements of Victorian London, and essentially taking those elements to the furthest extreme.  The city is dirty, overcrowded, dark, and yet stunningly beautiful in its design.  From the stone Gothic skyscrapers, to the highly colourful yet shabbied and dirtied interiors, Meanwhile City is all the more interesting as it exists in parallel to contemporary London.  Whether the audience sees it as a delusion or fantasy, the city is London as viewed through the eyes of David Esser, or indeed Jonathan Preest, as he calls himself in Meanwhile City.

The film takes on a triple narrative which is deftly interwoven as the story progresses.  The film is not fantastic by any means, and seems more suited to a short than a full feature length, however the concept and visuals are remarkable.  Questioning reality from the perspective of mental illness (David Esser played by Ryan Phillippe), artistic endeavours (Emily Bryant played by Eva Green), and loneliness (Milo played by Sam Riley) the story is far from your average fantasy.

Indeed the film seems to create a genre of its own that is hard to classify, for whilst it has elements from various genres, as with the design of Meanwhile City, it takes those elements to extremes.  Fantasy is created through the mind of an escaped mental patient, drama is created through the suicide attempts of an artist recording herself for a project, and romance is created through the Gradiva inspired story of a lonely man recovering from a messy divorce.   

What I enjoyed about Meanwhile City was that despite its vast, cavernous design, it always felt oddly claustrophobic (I think it is most easily comparable to the city created by the Strangers in Dark City).  The night's sky was certainly to be found if you looked high enough into the fog, however the vertical was littered with Gothic towers, arches and windows, in such a mass that they almost looked organic - as if the city had been carved into mountains that had always been there.

The city was designed on a vertical, with one never being quite certain of how high up the action really was, which really lent itself to the idea of masses of people living crowded atop one another.  Even in scenes where no other people were in sight, the city felt alive.  Steampunk can often be far too clean and shiny, so it was nice to see dirt and darkness throughout.  Whilst based entirely in fantasy, the setting gained a believability, from the perspective of the audience, simply from the presence of this dirt.  A city as crowded as Meanwhile City would no doubt be a filthy place, and were the city to have been presented as clean and pretty it would have been jarring and uncomfortable to watch.

I have always been more attracted to cityscapes and interiors that feel lived-in, for they seem more alive.  Whilst I enjoy looking at those minimalist interiors where brutal function and design are fused in all their Modernist glory, they always seem cold and, in spite of all the open clean white spaces, confined.  I would much rather have that cosy and crowded Victorian interior that just feels as if it has a story to tell.  Instead of the Mac-inspired interior, I dream of worn leathers, patchwork quilts, tapestry armchairs, hand painted tea cups, framed daguerreotypes, small oil paintings, leather-bound books and maybe a nice monocle and pocket watch to top off my grey flannel suit and polished brown brogues.      

The costume design was not particularly exciting, however I did enjoy the styling of the law enforcers of Meanwhile City, known as the Clerics.  The high top hats, polished brash buttons, drainpipe trousers and leather gloves were certainly fascinating.  The public restraint and strict rules of Victorian social life were mixed with a more Edwardian aesthetic, allowing the Clerics to reflect the changing times championed by the heads of Meanwhile City, whilst still remaining nostalgic to the contemporary film audience.

Although her storyline took place in contemporary London, the somewhat unstable character of Emily Bryant certainly fulfilled the role of the Gothic Horror's persecuted maiden.   

Her ongoing art project was admittedly rather clichéd, however it provided a nice depth and furnishing to the film nonetheless.

Milo's storyline introduced the audience to the character of Sally, again played by Eva Green, in a delightful Gradiva inspired tale.  Far removed from the dark and romantic styling of Emily, Sally was simply pretty and warm.  I loved the combination of the red hair and green dress.

Milo: I heard this story once when I was a kid, or read it. It was about a storyteller who was so good at telling stories that everything he made up became real. So the storyteller creates a world for himself where he's the king of the castle, has a beautiful princess on his arm. And then, one day, he wakes up. He looks around. He kisses her on the cheek and... legs it.
Dan: Why?
Milo: I don't know. Even though his life was perfect, absolutely perfect, he had the feeling he should be somewhere else. With someone else.

Currently playing: Straight No Chaser - Mr Hudson 



  1. I've never heard of this movie before, but the costume and the architecture looks like my kind of thing.

  2. I haven't heard of this movie but I am so going to be searching for it as soon as I finish this comment. The images are breathtaking and the plot spiked my interest.

    I enjoy the idealized, whimsical London usually portrayed in movies and books but the gritty, steam-punk city is much more interesting, isn't it? :)

  3. Amazing DK!
    reminded me of Terry Gilliam's movies~

  4. Those images look amazing! Movies get getting better and better with great tech advances

  5. Eva Green is perfection (especially in that red hair and green dress).

    Just seeing her makes me want to watch James Bond again, actually.


  6. Never heard of this movie but your right up and the gothic tones have put it on the top of my must-see list

  7. That Eva is something..so gothic atmosphere.

  8. Awesome pics and commentary of Meanwhile city.

  9. I've not heard of this film, but it looks amazing. Those are some stunning photos from it.

  10. I have not only heard of this movie, I've seen it, several times. It's fascination holds through mulitiple viewings. I think that people who are intrigued by your excellent description of the visuals for this film might be equally fascincated with the running themes of disaffected love and lose, and the philosophy of religion. Sound complicated? Only in a stimulating way.

  11. sorry, that should have said, "loss" not "lose"

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