Tuesday 22 March 2011

Review: Archipelago

Year: 2010 (U.K release 2011)
Director: Joanna Hogg
Screenplay: Joanna Hogg
Starring: Christopher Baker, Kate Fahy, Tom Hiddleston

Synopsis is here

I can honestly say this without a doubt...I don't know anyone I could recommend this movie to. I find this a bit of a shame because I would love to pick their brain. In fact saying that I enjoyed Archipelago almost has a shade of sadomasochist to it. The film itself is about a middle class family who have clearly spent years doing their best to pick each other apart. This is perhaps nothing new to some who were fans of films like American Beauty, The Ice Storm, Festen et all. However, such films have a certain element of warmth or connectivity to them. Archipelago has a chilliness as glacial as it's pace. For me its cold shoulder and British stiff upper lip is what makes the film so interesting.

Comparisons to Hanke and Bergman have been made and are very apt but gone is the dehumanization and existential crisis and is replaced with a repressed insecurity that only the British middle class could bring to proceedings. Hoggs film works best when it highlights those slight, recognizable intricacies that some families would love to hide.

Told in static, unwavering shots (combined with some beautiful blocking/framing of characters) Joanne Hogg sets and maintains the films focus and tone with remarkable precision. We learn much about these characters through their placement and coupling alone. Such aspects are important as despite it's naturalistic and often economic dialogue, most of the films kick comes from their restraint and body language. An example of this is Edward (Huddlestone) whose gawky stance and positioning constantly betray his feelings towards his other family members. It's also worth noting that one of the films domineering characters is an unseen, absent father who is given an eerie omnipresence by the family's one sided phone calls with him. The reason I bring this up is due to Edwards presence (or lack there of) when the calls are made. When the revelation that the family are on holiday for one last get together with Edward before he goes to Africa for 11 months, the lack of communication speak volumes. 

Conversation with the film are often polite pleasantries, masking a bitterness and anxiety that's clearly been felt for years. Hogg manages to seize upon this aspect time and time again throughout. The films main highlight involving Edwards sister Cynthia (a wonderfully scrabulous Lydia Leonard), a restaurant and some cooked guinea fowl is not only a well observed moment of humor, but also a deftly timed release of restrained emotion that truly feels like it's been back up since the helicopter landed on the island. You get the feeling that the missing father micromanages every relationship within the family.
Archipelago is carefully handled affair with Joanna Hogg who makes use her own directional discipline to take hold of a family who has lost their own. It is a film without a "regular" narrative structure but this is a film that doesn't need one. Keeping us at an arms distance at all times, we can merely watch in cringe-worthy detail a brief moment in this family's life. We will never know what's made them this way, only speculate. You don't get the relief of a usual cliched ending you can only hope that things can get better. The film by no way perfect; it's pace is beyond slow, there characters are be no means likable and it suffers from a very irritating artist character whose pretensions are almost as insufferable as my own. But Hogg's ability to open a door to these people, stir such fascination about them before shutting us off with nothing but our own thoughts to ponder, allows Archipelago to be one of the most stimulating films I've taken in this years first quarter. I don't know anyone I can recommend this to, but those who have the patience may absorb much from viewing it.