Tagged: social class

Carry on Cabby (UK 1963)

Carry on Cabby

They don’t make them like this any more

It’s probably a good thing that such blatantly sexist films – see above – like this are not made anymore. Except, of course, the Carry On . . . films (1958-92) were not quite as straightforwardly reactionary as the poster suggests. For a start, the men are all pathetic, self-absorbed idiots; the competent gender is female. This is expressed in Cabby through Hattie Jacque’s character who, in umbrage at her husband’s (Sid James) attitude toward her, starts her own cab (taxi) business, in secret, and easily beats him at his own game. In comedies it’s relatively easy to dramatise such subversive representations as we’re obviously not meant to be taking it seriously however in order for the humour to work it has to draw upon generally recognised tropes; in other words, maybe men deep down knew their hubris was ridiculous. Talbot Rothwell’s script gives James lines that demonstrate his own stupidity in one sentence: he bemoans not knowing what his wife’s up to but refuses to ask her if she isn’t going to tell him without him having to ask.

bingo

A Bamforth postcard

The film’s poster isn’t a million miles away from the style of Bamforth’s smutty/bawdy postcards that drew on the Musical Tradition of double entendres and terrible puns. I’m not sure the Carry On . . . series’ style of humour has any purchase for today’s youngsters, or even those slightly older; how much is my enjoyment for them nostalgia or a funny bone trained by the films during my formative years? In writing about them John Hill suggested:

the earlier films . . . focus on . . . institutions which bear most heavily on working-class experiences . . . the ‘them’ and ‘us’ attitude characteristic of certain forms of working-class consciousness refers primarily to the experience of authority relations, especially petty officialdom. (Sex, Class and Realism: British Cinema 1956-1963, 142-3)

The series ran for over 30 films showing how popular it was with the mass audience, even whilst the latter was declining for cinema during the 1960s. It was a healthy antidote to the middle-class niceties of Anna Neagle (directed by Herbert Wilcox) but without the gritty realism of the new wave, which invariably featured working-class characters. In Cabby the conflict is not with officialdom and the gender wars, of course, are resolved in favour of men who get to act the heroes in a typical Carry On . . . ending which dramatises collective action. However, it is noticeable that the collectivism of trade unions is shown not to be desirable.

The key to the series’ success was the actors; in addition to the aforementioned, other regulars grace the film: Kenneth Connor, Jim Dale, Liz Fraser and Charles Hawtrey. The men’s attitude toward sex is puerile and apparently typically British, who seem to feel they could never compete with French eroticism, and I wonder to what extent the passionless, middle class, stiff upper lip attitude (evident in Neagle’s films for example) informed these representations. The censorship of anything sexually daring only started to loosen during the ’60s and it wasn’t until the mid-’80s that the industry (self-)regulator changed its name from British Board of Film Censors to British Board of Film Classification. In 1969 Carry on Camping brought female, topless nudity into the mainstream by starting the film with characters watching Nudist Paradise (UK, 1960); one of a number of ‘nudies’ that circumvented censorship by documenting, as opposed to dramatising, life on a nudist camp. If memory serves, Carry On Up the Khyber (1968) is the best of the films.

¡Viva! 25 #6: Las niñas bien (The Good Girls, Mexico 2018)

This film has a similar title to the classic Claude Chabrol film from 1960 (Les bonnes femmes, France-Italy) which has by chance drawn a few visitors to this blog recently. Both films have question marks about how to translate their titles into English. It’s the ‘good’ part that’s the problem. What exactly does it mean? Chabrol’s film about four working-class shopgirls received criticism at the time but has since become recognised as one of his best films. Las niñas bien is about a group of upper middle-class women in Mexico City in 1982. The film was written and directed by Alejandra Márquez Abella and most of the ‘creatives’ on the crew were also women. This was noted on the film’s first big festival appearance at Toronto in 2018 where reviewers praised the film and Márquez Abella was selected by Variety as one of its ’10 Directors to Watch’ in 2019. The film has since gone on to win prizes at festivals and was released in March in Mexico. However, I wonder how it might now be viewed by those audiences who so enjoyed Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (2018) which deals with same world at an earlier time of crisis in 1972?

The Good Girls with their drivers

Las niñas bien is adapted from a book of essays written in the early 1980s by Maria Guadalupe Loaeza, one of a group of ‘Good Girls’, who exposed how these women spent their time and their money and how they treated each other and the others (servants, receptionists, shop staff etc. as well as the nouveau riche) who they met. In the interview below, Alejandra Márquez Abella explains how she decided to use this source material which she thinks is still relevant thirty years later as the same social class divisions remain and Mexico has suffered recurring cycles of economic ‘boom and bust’. She recognises that the original was a satire but argues that she hasn’t created a satirical film but rather a form of detailed character study looking at how these women behave and how surface appearances relate to what might be happening ‘underneath’. She feels that satire doesn’t really work in exploring this kind of world any more – there have been so many such satirical films about social class in Latin America.

Writer-director Alejandra Márquez Abella (centre with the microphone)

I have to say that as I watched the film I was very uncomfortable. Part of me was admiring the direction, the acting, the cinematography and the production design – this is a very well-made film. But the other half was raging against these wealthy dilettantes who contribute nothing to society and look down their carefully made-up noses at the rest of Mexico and indeed the country itself. After the screening I spent a long time thinking about the film and I haven’t quite resolved the conflict in my feelings about it.

 Ilse Salas as SofÍa

SofÍa in situ as the queen of her domain

The plot of the film follows roughly a year, I think, in the life of the central character SofÍa played by Ilse Salas. This is a stunning performance and I didn’t recognise the same actor who was also very good in Güeros (Mexico 2014) in a very different role. SofÍa is a woman from, presumably, a ‘good family’ who has been advised to marry Fernando because he too is from the right kind of family. When the narrative begins SofÍ is hosting a lavish party for her birthday. Everything is ‘just right’ except that she hasn’t achieved her fantasy result in which Julio Iglesias appears as a guest (this and the references to the Spanish department store El Corte Inglés is a sign of deference to the ex-colonial power in Mexico). The next day however Fernando learns that his uncle is pulling out of the business he had started as a ‘migrant’ (from Spain?) with Fernando’s father. There is a crisis coming with the falling value of the peso and anyone who doesn’t hold dollars is in trouble. From this point Fernando is in deep trouble – and so is SofÍ. Having packed her children off to summer camp with instructions not to mix with ‘Mexicans’ (!), SofÍ seems only marginally affected by the financial crisis when her credit cards are refused and her cheques bounce.

An important parallel plotline is the appearance of Ana Paula (Paulina Gaitan) as a young woman from the country with ‘uncouth’ manners who marries a successful financier (?) and aspires to join the ‘Good Girls’. She takes SofÍ as a role model and aspires to be like her, wanting to know how to speak, what clothes to wear, how to behave. SofÍ behaves very badly towards her but gradually the tables are turned as Ana Paula becomes the dominant figure in the social life of the group.

Daniela Ludlow cinematographer

A great deal of time is spent on clothes, make-up and interior decoration. Some commentators argue that this is unusual and shows the care and attention of a female crew. DoP Dariela Ludlow must take some of the credit for her presentation of the women alongside costume designer Annai Ramos. The film is set in the early 1980s which, from my perspective was one of the worst periods for fashion and I was reminded of Margaret Thatcher – not a pleasant memory. At the end of the film, SofÍ tears out her shoulder pads and I thought this might mark a change for the good, but the actual resolution of the narrative suggests ‘business as usual’. Earlier I mentioned a comparison with Roma. There is one shared moment between the two films when a drunken husband crashes his car into a post, but otherwise the two films are very different. Roma offers us several perspectives on Mexican society and in particular promotes the maid and the children to central roles and effectively narrators of the film. The ‘Good Girls’ marginalise both their servants and their children.

It doesn’t look at the moment as if this film will make it into UK distribution. I wish it would because I think it could generate discussion about what a film by women and arguably ‘for women’ might be in the current climate. I’m not sure whether I’m in tune with what Alejandra Márquez Abella attempts to do here, but I’m definitely interested in what she might do next. The film has been taken by Netflix so you may be able to find it there. The interview below is well worth exploring.

The Little Stranger (Ireland-UK-France 2018)

Caroline (Ruth Wilson) and Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson)

The Little Stranger is a beautifully made film adapted from a celebrated novel and directed by a ‘name’ director. It has four well-known star actors playing the leads and I liked it very much. It is also slow and in some ways sombre and its presentation from the distributors (Pathé/Fox in the UK) risks alienating its audience. Certainly that appears to have been the case in the US where it died in its second week, generating only $210 per screen from 477 screens. Its first weekend in the UK was poor but not disastrous, with a screen average of just over £1,000 from 297 screens giving it 13th place in the weekly chart. I suspect the film will skew older and therefore mid-week box office might be better.

The problem is that some audiences might be expecting a ghost story/horror film/haunted house picture when in fact it is a gothic melodrama set very carefully in 1948. Some IMDb comments suggest that for some US audiences the narrative will be bewildering but for older and more aware UK audiences, it should resonate.

Outline (NO SPOILERS!)

The film is adapted from the 2009 novel by Sarah Waters, her third to be Booker Prize nominated. She followed the 2006 The Night Watch, set in wartime 1940s London with a story set in 1948 during the period of the 1945-50 Labour government which transformed the UK. She claimed that this was a novel about a socialist Britain undergoing change.

Faraday and Caroline with Roderick (Will Poulter). Credit: Nicola Dove / Focus Features; from Focus press site

Dr Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is a GP (General Practitioner) in rural Warwickshire, a 37 year-old bachelor somewhat reluctant to embrace the National Health Service which is slowly being introduced. One day he is summoned to ‘Hundreds Hall’, the local stately home now beginning to decay as inheritance tax bites into the upper middle-classes’ wealth. He’s been there once before as an 8-year-old boy in 1919 when the hall was still in its Imperial pomp putting on a show for the local villagers, but now he finds the young heir Roderick Ayres (Will Poulter) to be a disabled RAF veteran, supported by his sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson) and his mother (Charlotte Rampling). Faraday has been called to see  young Betty, the only servant left. Betty is frightened and miserable rather than sick and there is a suggestion that there is something in the great house which is not quite right. Faraday finds himself curiously drawn into the world of the Ayres, first treating Roderick’s condition and then becoming more deeply involved in the family’s affairs. It will be some time before Faraday becomes fully aware of the symptoms and the extent of the family’s decline. How he reacts to events and what he attempts to do (or not do) forms the basis of the narrative.

Commentary

As directed by Lenny Abrahamson from a script by Lucinda Coxon, The Little Stranger is a slow-burning gothic tale well-served by Ole Bratt Birkeland’s cinematography and music by Abrahamson’s long-time collaborator Stephen Rennicks. Production design, art direction, costume, sound design, location scouting etc. are all top-notch. The key is restraint – and repression. Gleeson seems to me to be both perfect for the role, but also in one sense ‘wrong’ somehow. (He’s actually a year younger than Ruth Wilson, but his character is meant to be ten years older than hers – I suppose that means she is also wrong for the role, but I don’t think it’s important). More important is Gleeson’s very severe appearance as Faraday and his carefully researched accent – which gives his narration a restrained rationality. We don’t get a first name for Faraday (named for the scientist?). The use of the surname puts the doctor in his place in terms of social class. The upper classes always used surnames in social situations, especially the men, following public school practice. Faraday addresses his patient as ‘Roderick’ or ‘Rod’ but if they were social acquaintances he would have called him ‘Ayres’.

Charlotte Rampling as Mrs Ayres with Dr Faraday

The Little Stranger is all about social class. In some ways, Faraday is a working-class Tory. This has been a fairly common tradition in the UK in rural areas, especially in the families of servants (Faraday’s mother was a maid at the ‘big house’). But Faraday is made more complex by specific lines of dialogue in which he reveals some contradictory views about the Labour government’s policies. The real discourse about class focuses on the house which is crumbling physically and metaphorically as a symbol of the decline of the Ayres and their ilk. Most commentators have referred to Abrahamson’s last film Room because it featured in the 2017 Oscars, but I was reminded of What Richard Did (Ireland 2012) which also featured social class in quite subtle ways and was for me a more interesting film than Room.

Sarah Waters says of her initial research for the novel that she watched the films of the period, read popular novels and looked for the ‘voices’ of ordinary people. She kept in mind novels by the likes of Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca 1941 by Hitchcock), Dickens, Wilkie Collins etc. Thinking about it now, I wonder if she watched I Walked With a Zombie (1943) the Val Lewton-Jacques Tourneur film loosely based on Jane Eyre that has some elements in common with The Little Stranger, including the ambiguity of events. Are they supernatural or the result of some kind of psychological disturbance? There are several shots of staircases that suggest a Hitchcockian narrative.

Faraday and Caroline are equally repressed sexually – but is she more aware of her situation?

What is fascinating and satisfying about Waters’ complex narrative that is well-served here is that it has so many layers and narrative possibilities. The set-up offers us a potential romance between Faraday and Caroline and there is a key scene at a dance which I won’t spoil, except to point out that this is the only one of Waters’ narratives not to include a lesbian relationship. All we know about Caroline is that she was involved in the war effort but came back to the hall to help care for her brother. Many younger people during the war were politicised by the experience of ‘social mixing’ and in some ways Caroline is to the left of Faraday. As for Faraday himself , we also know only a little of his history. His parents struggled to give him an education and after qualifying as a doctor he spent the war years working in a military hospital. He has the chance to work in London but he seems obsessed with staying in the village. If this was a film made in the 1940s the central character might have been played by David Farrar or James Mason, both actors with very different personae to that of Domhnall Gleeson. I’m racking my brain to think of a 1940s cinema equivalent of the Faraday character and the actor who might play him. Trevor Howard seems a bit to smooth/posh.

Who or what is ‘The Little Stranger’? The people around me in the cinema seem to have made up their minds, but I think it is an open question. I’ll have to back to the novel, since I’ve forgotten Sarah Waters’ original ending. Perhaps I don’t want an ending anyway? The metaphor of the crumbling mansion, the new homes being built in the grounds by the local council and so on are fine for me. I note a couple of American reviews who see this as about ‘Britain in decline’. For me, 1948 signals the re-birth of Britain as a more equal society. Unfortunately the new world was not to last, but sweeping away the old to make room for the new is to be celebrated isn’t it? Perhaps ‘The Little Stranger’ is the infant welfare state?

Here’s the official UK trailer (with a few more spoilers than presented in the text above):

Funny Cow (UK 2018)

 

Funny Cow is a difficult film to write about. Maxine Peake is the star of the film and its executive producer and my admiration for her commitment to her craft and to working-class socialist politics is boundless. Add to that the filming in Saltaire and elsewhere in Bradford and Leeds and I’m certainly compromised. In some ways, I think that the most interesting aspect of the film, apart from Maxine Peake’s wonderful performance, is the range of positions adopted by various critics and commentators about the film and its depictions of Northern working-class life from the 1950s through to the 1980s.

Funny Cow is a fictional biopic of a female stand-up comedian, presented almost as a kind of arthouse ‘essay film’ about working-class life. The narrative jumps backwards and forwards during the life of the unnamed central character who is shown as a child (‘Funny Calf’) in the 1950s (played by Macy Shackleton), (very) briefly as a young wife in the 1960s (Hebe Beardsall) and finally as ‘Funny Cow’ in the 1970s and 1980s. At times, the fourth wall is broken and Maxine as Funny Cow talks to the camera. At other times she visits her old haunts and meets her younger self. Individual sequences are introduced with inter-titles. Throughout the narrative, Funny Calf/Cow wears bright shades of red, culminating in a red Triumph Stag car as her chariot – thus subverting the chauvinistic symbolic identity of the car (second only to the E-type in signifying macho posturing?). ‘Funny Cow’ is never given a first name. I assume that the nickname is meant to signify that process by which in the North of England (and other communities, I guess) derogatory names are given to best friends, almost as endearments – “stop it, you daft bugger!” etc.

Paddy Considine and Maxine Peake

The genesis of the project appears to have come from the meeting of the writer Tony Pitts and the actors Maxine Peake and Paddy Considine on the production of Red Riding: 1980, the second in the trilogy of TV films from 2009 based on the books by David Peace. All three were actors then and Pitts wrote Funny Cow, presumably with Peake in mind. I heard Peake discussing the production on radio and I think she said that convincing Considine to act in Funny Cow made it viable for financiers because he has a ‘known’ profile in the cinema. Much as I really like Paddy Considine, he is decidedly miscast in Funny Cow. Or perhaps it’s just a badly-written part? Either way it is a shame, because I thought his scenes were the only ones that just didn’t work. I couldn’t believe that under a wig and behind a pair of glasses was a great actor. I couldn’t believe in his character at all. He’s supposed to be an effete ‘intellectual’ running an enormous bookshop (without any discernible customers or staff) and living in a mansion decorated with artworks. Funny Cow starts a relationship with him, seemingly to get away from her abusive husband – or possibly hoping for an Educating Rita scenario? I did also wonder if this was a conscious role-reversal of the relationship between Joe Lampton and the industrialist’s daughter in Room at the Top (1958). It’s interesting that each scene in Funny Cow conjures up these memories. I think it’s a function of the episodic narrative.

Among the other familiar faces for UK audiences Alun Armstrong excels as a stand-up comedian in the pubs and clubs coming to the end of his career. It’s painful to watch but utterly convincing. He finds himself acting as Funny Cow’s mentor, not necessarily by choice. Other well-known names and faces appear in bit parts throughout the film.

Apart from a miscast Considine, the other weaknesses in the film hinge on the difficulty of representing the North of England of the 1950s-80s in 2018. It’s ironic that the streets of back-to-back houses depicted in the film are actually located in the World Heritage site of Saltaire – artisan’s dwellings in the model town built by Titus Salt. In at least one shot you can see Baildon Moor on the other side of the Aire Valley. They certainly confused Mary Beard on the BBC2’s ‘Front Row Late’ who thought that the National Trust had ‘sanitised’ them in Manchester. But she’s got a point. It’s impossible to recreate the Ripper Years of the late 1970s in Bradford and Leeds (although Red Riding made a valiant attempt). Everywhere is now a lot cleaner, partly because there are few dirty industries left and partly because many of the terraces have been replaced by modern housing. The other problem, for historical dramas is that representations of the working-class North of England in the 1970s (or 1960s) have become reified (i.e. made concrete, permanent) by a relatively limited number of successful films. Films like East is East (1999) for 1970s Salford/Bradford or Billy Elliot (2000) for 1980s Co. Durham, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) for Nottingham in the late 1950s or A Taste of Honey (1961) for Salford in the late 1950s and Charlie Bubbles (1969) for the devastation of old housing torn down in Manchester. TV has never really had the same problem since TV drama has very often been made in the North – in fact I’d argue that it is as familiar as London as a location.

But if we step away from the location issues, the real question is, “What is the film about?” or “What is it for?”. It isn’t simply a comedy. And it isn’t a faux biopic about a real female comedy performer (though Marti Caine has been widely touted as an inspiration for Peake’s character). If anything, the film is a satire on male chauvinism which has a terrible ending in which Funny Cow finally succeeds by adopting the homophobic racist gags of the Bernard Manning type of performer in order to put down an oafish, sexist man in the audience. I hated myself for laughing at what was an undoubtedly funny but ultimately degrading scene. This is where I fail. I never went to a ‘working man’s club’. As a lower middle-class grammar school boy in a town without heavy industry those clubs were very exotic for me in the 1960s and 1970s. I did watch the Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club on Granada as well as The Comedians in the 1970s. These shows were certainly sexist and racist but on TV comedians couldn’t be ‘blue’. I watched some of the shows again on YouTube and there is enough humanity in them to mean that they are still funny to me despite my winces at the social attitudes. Is the kind of performance in Funny Cow with its prolific use of the ‘c’ word more ‘authentic’? Is it somehow empowering for a female performer? I don’t know.

A few weeks before I saw Funny Cow I watched a biopic of the Irish comedian Dave Allen on BBC2. The final section of Funny Cow, which depicts a successful comedian being interviewed on TV, reminded me very much of the Dave Allen bio. Partly it was the incessant smoking but also the melancholy. Part of that melancholy is the situation in which Funny Cow finds herself abandoned in different ways by her brother (Stephen Graham, who also plays her father in the 1950s) and her mother (Lindsey Coulson). I wish I could remember what Funny Cow actually says in those later scenes, but I don’t think she comes over as a woman who has succeeded. Perhaps in the end Funny Cow is a kind of salutary lesson about what women had to endure in Northern working-class communities? I haven’t read any commentaries on the film that fully make sense of it and I’m still struggling. In the ‘Front Row Late’ discussion referenced above, the three critics generally disagreed about what they’d seen in the film. Paul Morley argued strongly for the film as illustrating the thesis that it was difficult to extricate yourself from your roots in Northern working-class communities without then being corrupted and compromised when you join the middle-classes. The only response is to turn back. But this too is impossible. This was the basis for the Albert Finney film Charlie Bubbles back in 1969 – that feeling that you are caught between two different social classes and that you don’t really belong in either.

Maxine Peake is magnifique in Funny Cow, but I think I’d rather have seen a film based on her play about Beryl Burton.

The Second Mother (Brazil 2015)

Jéssica (Camila Márdila) and Val (Regina Casé)

Jéssica (Camila Márdila) and Val (Regina Casé)

Brazilian Cinema

Brazil is the most populous and country in Latin America with the largest GDP but its film industry currently ranks second to Mexico in cinema admissions and behind Argentina in terms of prestige and international profile. Where Brazil does prevail, however, is in TV production as the centre for telenovela (a type of soap opera drama) production for a large domestic and international audience.

The Second Mother is co-produced by Globo Filmes, part of Grupo Globo, one of the world’s largest media groups and also home to TV Globo, the originator of the telenovela. Some commentators have suggested that The Second Mother is in some ways a cinematic equivalent of a telenovela. As the name implies a telenovela is a ‘long-form drama’, a novel in the form of a hundred TV episodes. Telenovelas cover a wide range of topics but some are certainly concerned with the after effects of colonialism – social class divisions and inequalities – and others focus on contemporary social issues which interest a mass audience.

The maid and nanny in post-colonial Latin America

There are several major themes in the ‘New Latin American Cinema’ of the last ten years. Latin America is now the most urbanised region on the planet with 80% of the population living in cities and surrounding urban areas. Given that for many years the image of Brazil on screen often included the rain forests or the Amazon, it is certainly worth considering just how many recent films have focused on urban life. They have focused on the problems of rapid urbanisation and how these have produced shanty towns/favelas alongside modernist architecture and gated communities. Inequalities have helped to create criminal gangs and kidnappings etc. Rapidly growing populations mean housing problems and pressure on services like education.

There have been several high profile Latin American films that have focused on wealthy (often very wealthy) families and the role of the maid and/or nanny). The Second Mother is not the film’s original title (which doesn’t easily translate from the Portuguese) but Val can be seen as either the ‘second woman’ who is a mother in the wealthy household or as the woman who acts as the nanny or ‘second mother’ of the teenager in the family, Fabinho. But the title might have another meaning as well, which we’ll discuss after the screening.

The maid/nanny figure is a ‘holdover’ from the European colonial period (even though this was 200 years ago). The European élites often appointed a young woman from the ‘native’ population as first a maid then a nanny and eventually as a housekeeper. (Something similar can be found in many ex-British colonial societies such as Hong Kong, Malaysia or India.) In all cases a specific three-sided relationship between mother, nanny and son/daughter develops. In the case of Val the maid/nanny/housekeeper and her own daughter Jéssica, Val respects the traditions associated with working for a rich family but Jessica is a ‘modern’ young woman who rejects class difference – thus creating the film’s narrative drive.

Contemporary Brazil

It is noticeable that when Jessica first arrives in São Paulo, the Southern hemisphere’s largest conurbation (of 20 million people), she first announces her plan to study architecture and then hears Val’s description of ‘concreting over’ the city she remembers from earlier times.

Anna Muylaert first conceived the idea for The Second Mother and outlined a script many years ago, but changed her approach after the election of Dilma Rousseff as Brazilian President in 2011, who has subsequently given support to female filmmakers. The new script, Muylaert says, “reflected the changes and debates that were happening around me. Instead of portraying the nanny’s daughter as hapless and meek – a faulty cliché – I gave her a forceful personality, made her noble and headstrong enough to stand up to the separatist social rules grounded in Brazil’s colonial past”. It is also clear that the film’s focus is very much on the women in both the wealthy family and in Val’s own family. Women have ‘agency’ in this film.

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):