An unhappy forty-something seeks refuge from a failed relationship with her friend’s family at a villa outside Sienna, Tuscany. Not a promising scenario for a feature film, especially when you consider writer/director Joanna Hogg’s track record in TV (she had the burden of trying to direct me in an episode of ‘Casualty’). And yet, ‘Unrelated’ turned out to be one of the most impressive, and cinematic, British debuts of the last decade.
Her new film, ‘Archipelago’, can only advance her reputation.
It’s another holiday picture. The venue: remote, wind-blown Tresco in the Isles of Scilly, where the Leighton family, or elements of the Leighton family, have come for an off-season break. Edward (Tom Hiddleston) will soon be taking up a volunteer position in Africa, a decision which seems to provoke excessive indignation in his kid sister, Cynthia (Lydia Leonard). Their mother, meanwhile, distracts herself with lessons in watercolour painting; all three unsettled pending the arrival of the father of the house.
These are privileged people: rich, well-educated, complacent – which might describe a large portion of the film’s likely audience, an audience that tends to prefer its realism grim and lower-class. So, a treacherous proposition for a film, and Hogg treads a careful, dispassionate line, neither apology, nor satire. She’s been criticised for not giving us the opportunity to empathize with the characters, but this misses the point. The film works because it makes no effort to ingratiate, because it assumes an intrinsic interest in people, not to mention a sensitivity to their contradictions.
The rigour and austerity of the approach suggests the influence of Robert Bresson. Intimate, seemingly improvised performances, from a mix of professionals and non-actors, lend an informality to a set-up so emotionally taut the slightest of gestures reverberates. Long takes and fixed camera refusing to break the tension, forcing the audience to sit, and squirm. ‘Unrelated’ made terrific use of off-screen space – a notable one-shot scene holds on a group gathered around the swimming pool while a verbal roasting goes on in the villa behind them. The technique is repeated in ‘Archipelago’ as we stick with Rose, the cook, confined to her room by the sheer force of Cynthia’s ranting downstairs. Excruciating. And very funny. Cynthia features in another stand-out scene, trying and failing to take control arrangements at an restaurant lunch. (Guinea Fowl, she discovers, is meant to served slightly pink.) A character so finely-drawn and desperate she could grace any Mike Leigh, if she weren’t so damn upper-middle class.
Archipelago premiered at the bfi London Film Festival where it received a special commendation from the jury. It’s released in UK cinemas today (March 4th).
a shorter version of this review was published in the Mexican web-magazine, enfilme