I missed Joanna Hogg’s film Archipelago (2010) on its theatrical release earlier this year, but having recently seen, and for the most part admired, Hogg’s first film, Unrelated (2008), I was eager to catch up with her most recent work. A chamber drama shot in a spare, austere, painterly style, Archipelago feels very much like a companion piece to Unrelated; in fact, Hogg has spoken of the films as the first two instalments in a loosely connected trilogy. Further, Archipelago reunites the director with one of the stars of her first film, the much-in-demand Tom Hiddleston.
Complementing Unrelated’s exploration of the interactions between a group of family members and friends on holiday in Tuscany, Archipelago’s focus is a family gathering on the Scilly Isle of Tresco. Prior to the departure of 20-something son Edward (Hiddleston) on a volunteering trip to Africa, the Lytton clan hole up at their summer rental on the island to say farewell. Edward’s sister Cynthia (Lydia Leonard) and mother Patricia (Kate Fahy) are present, but notable by his absence is Edward’s father, whose non-appearance becomes the subject of a series of increasingly testy phone-calls with Patricia. Filling out the group are the family’s cook, Rose (Amy Lloyd), who Edward finds himself drawn to, and the soulful artist Christopher (Christopher Baker) who is teaching Patricia how to paint.
Like Unrelated, Archipelago polarised viewers on its release with some finding its measured pace and art-conscious ambience captivating and others deeming its “privileged” protagonists unbearable. This isn’t the moment for a debate on issues of class in British cinema (although I do wonder whether viewers who complained about Archipelago’s comfortably middle-class crew had any problems clucking with sympathy over the travails of a rather more privileged protagonist in The King’s Speech). But what I admire about Archipelago is that it does things that most British films don’t do, and that it does them with discretion, intelligence and finesse.
Hogg is great on domestic detail, on the awkwardness of groups (a restaurant scene here is a mini-classic), on capturing her characters in moments of solitude and reflection, and on atmosphere. This is the kind of film that sharpens the viewer’s perception, and its Hammershoi-inspired compositions (with characters often shot from behind or through doorways) are expressive and interesting, the Tresco locations serving as more than a mere backdrop (as the Italian locations really didn't in Unrelated).
The tensions inherent in the family dynamic emerge believably, and the performances are engaging. Hiddleston’s work is especially fine, rendering Edward’s passivity and hesitancy exasperating and touching, while Leonard communicates the concern and insecurity that’s lurking under Cynthia’s tetchiness. And Baker (playing a version of himself) is a wonderfully calm presence: a fine late scene in which he provides Edward with a memorable definition of “toughness” is a highlight of the film. I don’t think Hogg means for us to pass a final judgement upon these characters (although it seems that many viewers went on to do just that), instead casting a wryly sympathetic eye on their foibles, their hesitancies, their squabbles and their brief moments of connection.
Archipelago is perhaps a little too proud of its art-film credentials (no music, no camera movement). And as in Unrelated at times the semi-improvised dialogue seems a strain on the performers; although Hogg’s approach is very different, a few moments here have the peculiarly unreal “reality” that John Cassavetes's work can have. But, as in Cassavetes’s films, other scenes are marvellously effective, and touch off very personal associations. The upside of Hogg’s studiously “subtle” approach is that Archipelago leaves the viewer plenty of interpretive space. So the lives of its rather opaque characters resonate and linger in the mind. Overall, then a beautiful and distinctive movie from a British filmmaker to watch.