The camera hovers over the water, perhaps a loch somewhere, skimming over the darkness as if floating or in flight. A voice speaks out, clearly: ‘I know we aren’t supposed to be afraid of death, but I am.’ This voice belongs to Garnet Frost, and the loch is his destination, a remote part of the highlands where some Jacobite gold may or may not be buried. This is a film ostensibly about searching for that gold, but it’s also about why Garnet is looking for it, and it’s about facing your regrets and seeking fulfilment in life, in whatever shape that may take.
Garnet is an eccentric man in his sixties who seems to be from another time and place, an old school adventurer and polymath of sorts who tries his hand at everything and doesn’t get paid for anything. He’s the kind of person whose house (well, his mother’s house) is filled with decades of detritus, the bits and bobs accumulated over a lifetime of half-told stories. One of the many curios strewn around this dusty library of his life is a staff that he once found sticking upright out of a rock, having almost died falling down a hill in the highlands. Since then, Garnet has been convinced that the staff was a marker for the hiding place of gold that was supposed to fund the Jacobite army but never reached its destination. Finding this gold is, for Garnet, a way to actually go out and achieve something, to break the cycle of starting but never finishing things. If he can find the gold, it will make amends for everything else that has been incomplete in his life.
Amazingly, Garnet’s Gold is a documentary.
Where many documentaries opt for talking heads and arbitrary stock footage to tell a story, director Ed Perkins takes a far more creative route. The opening voiceover establishes a tone for the rest of the film: this is about telling an emotionally resonant story and exploring Garnet’s self-actualisation, his fears and regrets, as much as it is about following him into Scotland. So much of the film feels more like fiction – at times almost staged – making the journey lyrical and quixotic. The elements of artifice are arguably unimportant; some of the best documentaries of the last few years – Bombay Beach, Man on Wire, Grizzly Man – have taken creative, more story-oriented approaches to the genre, elevating it above run-of-the-mill anecdotal documentaries such as 20 Feet From Stardom. By prioritising theme and tone over a rigorous chronological account of events, Perkins achieves moments of sublime beauty – this is the most visually impressive documentary of the year so far (although it helps that the Scottish highlands are so videogenic).
Where perhaps the story will occasionally take a flight of fancy, the humanity of the film and the insight into this unique man’s life are completely honest. The camera doesn’t shy away from moments of apparent egotism and even cruelty, but it also captures the raw truthfulness of a man who is living with regrets and is trying to leave them behind. Garnet himself is a compelling character, who would be described as unrealistic if he appeared in a fiction film, but surrounding him are equally memorable characters. Garnet’s mother, who believes the gold isn’t there but wants him to pursue it anyway, and an old flame whose eyes betray an affection for the gentleman adventurer that has lasted even into their sixties, add more depth to the depiction of a totally unique life. By the end, Garnet’s quest takes on a universal significance, about seizing life and what that actually means. The answer isn’t, necessarily, to go hunting for gold in the highlands. The result is a film that is compassionate, honest and ultimately very moving.