Joanna Hogg's debut feature, UNRELATED, was an emotional drama so quietly powerful - so cleanly produced - that I was tempted to tag it Pantheon and dare history to prove me wrong. Her second feature, ARCHIPELAGO, has all the virtues of UNRELATED, and if less immediately gripping that her first film (perhaps because expectations are so much higher?), is still miles ahead of most current cinema in its ability to mine the deeply held frustrations of familial relations. ARCHIPELAGO is a satisfyingly uncomfortable watch - a movie both darkly funny; raw; bitter; and all finely balanced on a knife edge.
The film begins as Edward (Tom Hiddleston) arrives on the Cornish holiday island of Tresco to spend a final fortnight with his family before abandoning a City career for a year's charity work in Africa. The fortnight will consist of walks, bicycle rides, picnics, painting and the occasional dinner. Edward's mother Patricia (Kate Fahy) and sister Cynthia (a scene-stealing Lydia Leonard) are already there not to mention a cook, Rose (Amy Lloyd) and a painting tutor (Christopher Baker). But, much to Ed's chagrin, his girlfriend Chloe hasn't been allowed to come because she's not family with a capital "F", and much to Cynthia and Patricia's discomfort, the father doesn't show up either.
And this brings us to the meat of the story: what family is and what one should expect of them. Ed's family are not supportive of his belated gap year. His mother is quietly negative. ("Ed's decision doesn't reflect badly on his father" when clearly she thinks it does.) His sister is openly, brutally critical. One can tell that both are hitting somewhere near the mark - Ed clearly doesn't know what he is about to do - but there means of expressing it is truly poisonous and stems in some part from frustration with the absent father.
As the film progresses, each member of the family reveals more of themselves despite the covering layers of upper-middle class politeness. There are, however, no big dramatic revelations - no moments of crisis - no moments of catharsis followed by closure. Joanna Hogg maintains the tone of strained emotions throughout - eschewing big bang finishes for an authentic examination of real emotions. The purity and austerity of this approach is underscored by her shooting style, which typically uses static cameras in still frames which may or may not include the faces of the people speaking; avoids introduced lighting often leaving her characters in darkness; and avoids artificial sound-tracks making those uncomfortable silences even more ominous.
The resulting film is difficult, honest and painful, because so much of the behaviour is recognisable. Like her previous film, UNRELATED, ARCHIPELAGO seems to live in a space where characters live in self-delusion but are stripped bare in a sequestered environment. Interns of content, Joanna Hogg reminds me of Nicole Holofcener, the American director who has made similarly painful, scabrous films about the emotional lives of the upper-middle classes. But the austerity of Hogg's style is quite unique.
ARCHIPELAGO played London 2010 and goes on release in the UK today.
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