Archipelago | Film reviews, news & interviews
Joanna Hogg's follow-up to Unrelated is an exquisite study of family strife
Upper-middle-class familial relations are placed under an unflattering spotlight in Joanna Hogg’s rich, resonant and often scathingly comic drama, which triumphantly harnesses the power of the unsaid and the unseen. Like its predecessor Unrelated, Archipelago is a superior, stylistically distinct work that is utterly, almost cringingly credible.
Coming together for a family holiday on a remote, unnamed island (actually Tresco, the second largest of the Isles of Scilly) are Patricia (Kate Fahy) and her adult offspring, Edward (Tom Hiddleston) and Cynthia (Lydia Leonard). Her husband William’s arrival has been delayed, which becomes a catalyst for rising tensions. The ensemble of characters is completed by the family’s hired cook Rose (Amy Lloyd), and Patricia’s painting teacher Christopher (Christopher Baker).
The family reunion has been prompted by the earnest and disenchanted Edward’s decision to leave a career in the City in order to volunteer for a year in Africa, where he intends to educate people about the spread of Aids. His plan is disapproved of from the outset by the brittle Cynthia, with their mother expressing perfectly polite, if unenthusiastic, support. As the film progresses, Edward’s own misgivings about his decision are revealed and the family’s stilted but courteous interactions give way to undisguised angst and full-throttle frustration.
The film’s title refers to a group of islands and can be interpreted both literally with regards to the film’s location, but Hogg also asks us to see the family in this way - as independent entities which are intrinsically and immovably linked. The film’s idiosyncratic Tresco setting (pictured right) makes an apposite backdrop for a narrative which documents the increasingly fraught and chilly family relations - managing to be both lush and welcoming and cold and barren.
It’s a film of remarkable stillness and predominant quiet, characterised by pregnant silences and where - in the absence of music of any kind - birdsong provides the only melody; so when the silence is broken it is all the more powerful. To similar effect, Hogg is extremely sparing in her utilisation of close-ups, often observing events from a distance - through adjoining rooms for instance - in a detached but carefully composed way which lends a tremendous, almost uncomfortable intimacy to the moments where we are allowed close to the characters.
As she demonstrated so surely in Unrelated, Hogg has a masterly grasp of the unseen. For example, like Oakley’s explosive confrontation with his father George in Unrelated, in Archipelago the family’s most ferocious arguments are not shown but are overheard as they reverberate through the house.They are visually depicted through the mortified reactions of others, giving these sequences a terrific and excruciating impact.
In Archipelago, the family holiday is marred by William’s continued failure to show; yet despite his absence, he looms large over proceedings. We consequently build up an impossible, larger-than-life picture of him based on the slightly cowed manner of the trio and Edward’s cheeky but almost apologetic impersonations, which paint his father as a hubristic toff. Cynthia’s response to Edward’s new, more altruistic direction provides further insight when she posits poshly that it “must be a bit embarrassing for Dad”. Furthermore, without him relations between the others are shown to fall apart, as if he is the family’s robust glue and his non-attendance is itself the cause of the conflict. The impression we are left with is far more formidable than if William were ever made flesh.
The film features a triumphant medley of familiar faces and appropriately cast amateurs. Archipelago was, in part, inspired by the work and words of Hogg’s own painting teacher Christopher Baker and consequently Hogg rewards him with a key role as Patricia’s artistic mentor who, during their time on the island, becomes like a surrogate father to Edward (Christopher Baker with Tom Hiddleston pictured above left). Baker brings something unusual to the film with his presence and his character gives Edward a unique take on his dilemma.
Hogg has also cast professional cook Amy Lloyd (pictured right) in the part of Rose (although she has a background in acting, having first trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, before retraining as a chef). This piquant blend of established and non-professional actors creates believable inter-class dynamics and gives texture to the interactions. Lloyd, in particular, acquits herself admirably, bringing to the role a suitable sense of being an outsider of a lesser social standing. Her use of nervously emphatic gesture to express herself to those who she has been hired to serve is authentic and endearing.
Archipelago has strong ties to Hogg’s debut feature Unrelated. From the outset she actively encourages comparison with the stylistically identical opening credits. Both films are punctuated by (often) strained telephone conversations with a partner who remains unseen or heard. Unrelated also skilfully mixed professional and non-professional actors; its lead Kathryn Worth was, like Amy Lloyd, someone who had studied the craft but not pursued it as a career. There are also key differences; for instance, despite the prominent presence of the excellent Tom Hiddleston in both, his characters couldn’t be more different. In Unrelated he was the cocksure, unrequited object of middle-aged desire - in Archipelago he is Rose’s puppyish admirer.
As painful to watch as it is pleasurable to contemplate, Archipelago is both meticulously constructed and disarmingly fresh and authentic. Beautiful and mundanely horrifying in equal measure (the restaurant sequence will have you watching through your fingers), it also boasts a quintet of charming complimentary performances. With this remarkably nuanced, distinctive and insightful film, Joanna Hogg confirms herself as a major new voice in British cinema.
Watch the trailer for Archipelago
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 7,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
How can music express the unimaginable?
Austere German drama of extreme religion packs a bleak punch
A subterranean film about the factory of the self
Frantz Fanon’s decolonization seen through 1970s Swedish television Africa archives
A week celebrating the futuristic and fantastical on theartsdesk. Begin transmission...
Three fine actors adrift in a highly pictorial Paris
A return to his Polish roots, Pawel Pawlikowski's latest is a bleak, sacred masterpiece
A chameleonic talent at home in the worlds of theatre, cinema, and comedy
Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Cannes Palme d'Or winner is huge in every sense
Vampire fun from New Zealand
Jennifer Lawrence returns in the series' best and most nuanced instalment to date
Tommy Lee Jones' sophomore directorial effort is an elegiac and eccentric western