Archipelago (UK 2010)

The holiday group (from left) Christopher, Patricia, Rose, Cynthia and Edward. The colour palette of pink/grey/khaki/blue is evident here on a desultory picnic trip.

This is the second film by writer-director Joanna Hogg and like the first, Unrelated (2007), it features an upper middle class English family on holiday. I confess that I really didn’t like the earlier film set in Tuscany. I admired it as a piece of filmmaking but most of the characters were so unappealing to me that I found it hard to watch. In particular I found the central character, a woman on her own joining a family group, to be intensely irritating. Because of this I approached Archipelago with some trepidation.

This time the family group is much smaller and the narrative seems more focused. The holiday on Tresco, one of the Scilly Isles, is a family tradition. They always stay in the same house and this time the holiday is a kind of farewell gathering for Edward (Tom Hiddleston), who has given up his city job in order to take up a voluntary post in Africa working on an AIDS project. He’s joined by his older sister and his mother. His father is supposed to be there but hasn’t as yet arrived. There are two ‘outsiders’ in the party. The first is Christopher, a professional artist who is tutoring Edward’s mother (and who is played by Hogg’s own art tutor, the painter Christopher Baker). The second is a live-in young cook, Rose, played by Amy Lloyd who is a professional cook with a drama school background. The mother (Patricia) and sister (Cynthia) are played by professional actors (Kate Fahy and Lydia Leonard).

Joanna Hogg has explained that there were two specific inspirations for her script. One was Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot and the other was a Paul Schrader article about Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (France 1966). Edward is effectively the man who is too ‘good’ for his own good and he finds himself in a family situation where although he is clearly troubled by his own indecisiveness, it is very difficult to communicate with his sister or mother – in fact he’s much more likely to have some form of communication with the two outsiders.

So, what does Joanna Hogg achieve in Archipelago? If you want a conventional art cinema review of the film, I highly recommend Jonathan Romney in Sight and Sound (March 2011). He nails the film very convincingly. I’m interested here in some other questions which I’m struggling to articulate. First I should say that as an ‘art object’, I think that Archipelago is very well put together. Every aspect of the film has been thought through carefully and executed with precision. There is a clear personal aesthetic which covers camerawork, editing and sound as well as narrative structure. This enables Hogg to present the landscape of Tresco – or rather the ‘environment’ of the island – as almost another character in the drama. There is no music in the film but the soundtrack is filled with the sound of the wind (which is of Kurosawa-like intensity at times) and birdsong. On the DVD commentary Hogg tells us that the birdsong is in effect an ironic commentary on the characters’ lack of communication with each other. The camera rarely gets close to any of the characters, preferring a discreet distance and often framing the three family members together in awkward (but often quite beautiful) compositions. There is much discussion about the philosophy of painting and art generally and several scenes are shot in a painterly style. Romney refers to a Danish painter I don’t know but on one occasion I thought an indoor scene was reminiscent of an Edward Hopper painting.

In narrative terms the film is characterised by several significant absences. The father is absent and we learn about him only through the phone calls received by his wife (all of which, I think, we see from behind her) and Edward’s impressions of a rather gruff huntin’ and shootin’ man. The other missing character is Chloe, Edward’s girlfriend who is talked about but not seen. Visually, a symbolic absence is a framed print in the sitting-room which the family have taken down because they can’t stand it. Apart from the paintings of both the mother and her teacher, there is also an absence of any other cultural artefacts. No TV or radio, no music players, no newspapers, nothing really to intrude upon the introspective and stifling atmosphere. Cynthia owns up to have borrowed a book from her mother – but she confesses that she has hardly read any of it.

I think one of my questions is about audience responses to art cinema. Hogg’s work has been compared to such directors as Rohmer and Ozu – both in terms of aesthetic and family drama. This film reminds me of Antonioni a little. Of course there are many differences in such comparisons as well but my interest here is to observe that I view those films as texts about ‘other’ cultures. The more different it is (Japanese middle class life in the 1950s) the easier it is to distance myself. The British middle class milieu is in one sense much more familiar (I’ve often stayed with friends in relatively isolated houses in remote parts of the UK and abroad) yet also in a way completely alien. I couldn’t stand more than a few hours in the company of Patricia or Cynthia (even if I’ve sometimes behaved nearly as badly as they do – and I suspect we all have). Social class difference is for me still the defining feature of British culture. The way in which Rose is treated in the film fills me with fury but perhaps the best illustration of this is the implied criticism of Edward. Romney in his review has this description:

” . . . Edward is unassumingly pleasant, compassionate, idealistic – and irredeemably wet.”

It’s that use of the term ‘wet’ that is interesting. What does it actually mean? When Margaret Thatcher was savaging her way through the structure of British society, any of the (male) MPs in her own party who complained that she was going too far were dismissed as ‘wet’. The upper middle classes send their male children to boarding school, partly I think, to ‘toughen’ them up – to give them the confidence and arrogance to rule over the rest of us plebs. It clearly hasn’t worked for Edward who instead is sensitive but emotionally stunted. One of the teases of the film is that you hope that he will find some sort of emotional release with Rose – but this is a film in which narrative expectations are not likely to be fulfilled.

It seems that Joanna Hogg expects her audience to decode all the signs of repression in this family and to take their pleasure from the presentation of a well-crafted art object, but I can’t help wondering what her underlying motive is. Does she intend a political critique of this kind of upper middle class life? Perhaps the problem is mine in expecting some kind of social commentary to be progressive in some way? One specific point in respect: I found some aspects of Edward’s description of the project in Africa to be unbelievable and I’m not sure whether this was intended.

On the other hand, I think Joanna Hogg succeeds in creating an art film which successfully challenges audience expectations in an intelligent and carefully constructed way and I guess that can’t be a bad thing.

Here’s the UK trailer (the music doesn’t appear in the film):

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