Archipelago (2010) ★★★½
Dir: Joanna Hogg, UK, 114 mins
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Kate Fahy, Lydia Leonard, Amy Lloyd, Christopher Bake
Archipelago is set on the beautiful, windswept isle of Tresco, part of the Isles of Scilly. Patricia (Kate Fahy) invites children Cynthia (Lydia Leonard) and Edward (Tom Hiddleston) to the family holiday home. This is arranged as a farewell for Edward who is about to depart to Africa, embarking on charity work for a year. Patricia hires artist Christopher (real life landscape artist Christopher Lloyd) to teach her water colours and chef Rose (Amy Lloyd) to cook for the family. Patricia’s husband Will is due to join the family later on in the week.
To label Joanne Hogg’s third feature a family drama in the formulaic sense is to do it a great disservice. Hogg has no interest in conventions; her characters do not undergo life changing lessons that make them “better” people with remarkable last minute epiphanies. Instead what we have is a brutal dissection of middle class mores, the dysfunction beneath a visage that has to be maintained. In this sense it takes the stiff upper lip image used so often on screen to depict this class but instead probes deeper to unveil darker home truths, middle class social realism if you wish.
This is a proper director’s film and could rightly be accused of being impenetrable with its glacial style. The camera remains static and at a distance as scenes play out. It is only as long simmering tensions become inflamed that shots are framed closer to the protagonists. There is no heavy exposition, we learn about these people through the standard conversation they share, a tic or seemingly minor comment reverberating deeply. A dinner table scene where Cynthia belittles Edward’s decision to go to Africa is a prime example, illustrating his need to buck conformity and the loyalty Cynthia feels he owes his father who arranged a stable job for him. Although Will is never seen on screen his influence looms large over the entire family. It feels as if his force of personality and expectation has shaped their lives, right or wrong.
There are times where the viewer can feel clammy and overly voyeuristic at what they are witnessing. Nevertheless, it holds a strange hypnotic quality and invites us into a world not usually depicted with such raw honesty. Out of a nuanced, naturalistic cast special praise should go to Hiddleston as Edward, unsure if he is making the right turning at his crossroads, and Fahy who you suspect holds a deep reserve of melancholic regret towards her marriage. Archipelago is a film that will not suit everyone’s tastes. However, the meticulous execution cannot be doubted and to generate so much with such restraint and understatement is a rare achievement and to be applauded.