Archipelago (Joanna Hogg, 2010)

I recently caught up with Joanna Hogg’s second feature on DVD. I had originally intended to see it during the Dublin Film Festival earlier in the year, but clashing film schedules wouldn’t allow it. It’s probably just as well, as shouting at your telly in the comfort of your own home is much more preferable to venting your frustration in a packed cinema.

Hogg’s film centres around an upper middle-class English family holidaying in a rented house on the Scilly Isles. Mother Patricia (Kate Fahey), daughter Cynthia (Lydia Leonard) and son Edward (Tom Hiddleston, making his second appearance for Hogg after 2007’s debut film Unrelated) convene for a few weeks’ relaxation, by way of a send-off for Edward, who is due to leave for Africa to take up a post as a volunteer aid worker.

Edward is conflicted about his decision and seems to be having a bit of an early mid-life crisis about where his life is going in general. He doesn’t get much in the way of support from his mother or sister, both of whom seem incapable of reaching out, or making any kind of real emotional connection with the others. He finds some mild distraction with Rose (real-life cook Amy Lloyd), the cook the family have hired for the holiday (I know), who he can at least talk to and connect with.  Cynthia is harbouring her own inner anger and frustration, which manifests itself in her bossing the other’s about, and being generally bitchy to Edward. In one terse exchange over dinner (most of the arguments seem to involve food) Edward mentions his regret at not inviting his girlfriend along on the holiday, as he will only have one night with her before he goes; to which Cynthia replies that this is a family holiday and that he’s only known his girlfriend eighteen months anyway, so she can hardly be counted as family.

The Mother, Patricia, withdraws into silence at any confrontation; preferring to lose herself in the painting lessons that the family has arranged (I know!) for the duration of their stay with local painter Christopher (real-life painter Christopher Baker). William, the husband/father of the bunch is notable by his absence; he rings a number of times obviously explaining the reasons for his delay, but he never actually arrives. This only adds to the growing tension between mother and siblings, who become more isolated from each other as the holiday progresses; each remaining their own little island. I can’t say I blame him for staying away.

My main problem with this film is that I simply don’t care about this bunch of simpering, whimpering toffs.  Who cares about a mollycoddled bunch of Hooray Henry’s who can’t connect emotionally anyway? I only continued watching in the hope that the house would somehow catch fire and they’d all perish in the blaze; or that the helicopter, which ferries them to and from the mainland, would be blown off-course by strong headwinds, dumping the rotters in the sea. But no. While I’ll never be heard to say that I love the films of Joanna Hogg; I can’t deny that she has a firm grip on her craft and shows a skill in observing and dissecting the complex familial relationships of these, albeit well-off, characters. This is her milieu after all.

She also takes chances with her camera, sometimes going for unusual framing, using long-shots and painstakingly composing every scene like a painting. In fact, painting seems to have been a huge influence on her visual style here, as the act and art of painting features heavily, through the conversations and observations the group share with Christopher Baker.

So not one to rent for a fun night in, but certainly an assured, accomplished second feature from a director not afraid to stay true to her course. It’ll be interesting to see where she goes from here.

Archipelago is out now on DVD.

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