“The following is my explanation,” begins our narrator (Jeremy Theobald), as he looks to give an account of his recent shadowing exploits to an inquisitor (John Nolan). The shadowing involves picking people at random on London’s streets and following them around, seeing where they go and what they do. However, for the main character in British noir Following (1998, 70 mins), a struggling writer looking for inspiration in people, his following becomes an obsession and, even with self-imposed rules in place, he can’t help getting involved further, which leads him into a shady underworld of crime.
With no budget, the film is financially a million miles away from the budgets Christopher Nolan would later work with in Inception (2010) and his Batman trilogy (2005 – 2012), but here we see that his interest in identity and non-linear narrative was already well developed. The narrator shows up one minute with long hair and beard and then is clean shaven the next. In one scene his face is beaten up, and the following scene sees it intact. As a straight narrative it is arguable that Following may not have worked as well because the jumbled scenes give hints at what is to come without ever implying where we are in the narrative and creates a sense of mystery. For a story being recounted, this format may be an accurate portrayal of such a telling, as the mind does wander, hinting at what it to come or shooting off at tangents to fill in the back story.
The narrator (credited as The Young Man, although he gives his name as both David Lloyd and Bill in the film) gets in too deep when one of his tails (Alex Haw) turns out to have known he was being followed. He introduces himself as Cobb, a burglar, and begins mentoring him on how to break and enter. Cobb, however, gets his kicks not from stealing but from invading lives, understanding them, and messing around with them. In one house he tucks a pair of woman’s underwear into some trousers for the imagined fallout it may cause. “You take it away and show them what they have,” he says, on the subject of interrupting lives.
The Young Man returns to the scene of one crime, finding himself more and more intrigued by a blonde woman (Lucy Russell), especially now that he has stolen photos of her. While they begin a relationship, there is always, lurking at the back of the mind, her previous partner, a club owner (Dick Bradsell) with interests in operations criminal. How Cobb reacts to his student getting involved with their targets is to be expected, but the overarching narrative is far more complicated and Following becomes a game of who knows who, who’s following who, and who, ultimately, will come out on top.
While the overall story may seem a bit contrived, it works on its own terms. It feels reduced to the barest bones it need be to tell its tale and that is likely due to budgetary restraints. This is, after all, a movie made before a career was born. Shot completely in black and white on 16mm film, the cast is presumably friends and family, some of whom would go on to acting careers while others would never act again. There’s no money for special effects (what’s off camera is infinitely more horrific anyway) but what there is is a whole lot of heart and playfulness. Its limited locations never inspire a sense of claustrophobia and its non-linear nature leaves clues for repeated watching. When the ending comes all the strands knot together and these interrupted lives are shown what they had.