The Whalebone Box (3 stars)

The Whalebone Box

Andrew Kotting is at the helm of this intriguing, disorienting road trip film

An intriguing collage of image and ideas, Andrew Kotting's The Whalebone Box weaves a hypnotic tapestry of the mystical and the mundane, of the power of legend and the impact of man upon his environment. Those already familiar with Kotting's work, which includes By Our Selves (starring Toby Jones), will know that to expect a straightforward, linear narrative will be to quickly lose your way; the film is best experienced by submitting to the vision of its maker.

It's ostensibly a road trip documentary, as Kotting, writer Iain Sinclair and pinhole photographer Anonymous Bosch make the 800-mile journey from London to the remote Scottish island of Harris, in order to return a mysterious whalebone box that had washed up in a fisherman's net and was subsequently given to Sinclair as a gift. It is believed that the box has life-altering potential, but must remain unopened. Alongside this pilgrimage, Kotting's daughter Eden, who suffers from Joubert's disease, narrates a dreamlike tale of whales and witches, real or imagined.

Shot primarily on Super 8, with evocative archive and pinhole imagery threaded throughout, The Whalebone Box has an otherworldly quality from the start. That's as true for the more regular moments – Kotting and Sinclair having a brief discussion on the changing form of cinema, for example – as it is for the more surreal elements. Eden recounts her dreams of a whale while sitting, adorned with flowers, in a forest, and gazes through binoculars at the enormous whale skeleton in London's Natural History Museum; the bemused patrons flowing around her making her appear as an island in a surging sea. Elsewhere, whale song infiltrates the soundtrack, while human voices loop and collide.

It's disorienting, but there is meaning here: about environmental and economic catastrophe (the island of Harris is suffering from a destitution that, it's hoped, the box can mend); about the healing and damning nature of myth; and, like that great whale story Moby Dick, about the dangers of man's unchecked ambition. Chapter headings are borrowed from Philip Hoare's celebratory novel Leviathan, or The Whale, in which the author admits that he can never really know the animal with which he's so infatuated. This idea of the whale as monstrous spectre, enigmatic spirit of the sea, infuses The Whalebone Box – a film which, similarly, remains defiantly undefinable.

Available to watch on MUBI from Fri 3 Apr.

The Whalebone Box

  • 3 stars
  • 2020
  • UK
  • 1h 24min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Andrew Kotting

A documentary in which director Kotting, writer Sinclair and photographer Bosch journey from London to the island of Harris to return a mysterious whalebone box that had washed up in a fisherman’s net. Disorienting, mysterious and yet powerfully meaningful and intriguing in its meditation on environmental and economic…

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