Joanna Hogg / UK / 2010
Joanna Hogg’s second feature Archipelago displays her increasing talents well but the suspicion lingers that at its heart this is a very similar film to her debut, Unrelated.
For the defence we have a change of scenery - from Italy to the Isles of Scilly, from the scorching summer to a blustery autumn sometime near Remembrance Sunday. With a paired down cast and less of a plot the performance and set-up - the garbled deliberate miscommunication between the upper-middle classes - receives a harsh unforgiving spotlight that almost no one else in the UK is doing so honestly or intimately. Forget accusations of class snobbery - Hogg is nearly unique, and unfairly draws criticism for something that barely draws question in French cinema.
For the prosecution, it’s covering the same terrain yet again and barely anything happens.
Mother Patricia (Kate Fahy) is trying to hold the family together for a holiday, son Edward (Tom Hiddleston) is having doubts about his career and imminent volunteer mission to Africa to teach sexual health and sister Cynthia (Lydia Leonard) spends the whole time sniping and being unpleasant to everyone. The cook looks on in mounting embarrassment as the son uses her as his latest cause (“she should eat with us”) and she eventually comically ends up brandishing kitchen knives subconsciously whenever he draws near.
Over most of the runtime the atmosphere is one of excruciating tension. The angst between characters who have nothing to say to one another builds until unbearably it explodes. Not that we gain much satisfaction from this. An off-screen slanging match between mother and daughter clears the air, but the causes remain unaddressed.
With less going happening on the surface, and the move to cooler climes, Archipelago is certainly a much more contemplative film. Where fortysomething Anna in Unrelated explores her relationship problems by hanging out with her friend's kids, here Edward – played by Hiddleston who played the juvenile young adult in the previous film - takes more of a centre stage here in this family with all his doubts. Sister Cynthia has some problems which aren’t really delved into, and mother is steadily going berserk at her absent husband for either his absence from the family holiday or what may be the breakdown of the marriage. Certainly the cooler palettes of the islands with the bird sounds and blustering winds, with lots of prolonged shots of landscape and the lovely cottage they’ve hired is all new.
If any single scene sums up the feeling of this one, its where the group - family, painting instructor and domestic head to a restaurant and sister Cynthia sends back the Guinea fowl for being undercooked. As the strop develops everybody else tries to ignore the issue in that fantastically British way. Building up steam Cynthia forces the issue and sends it back much to everybody’s heads-down total shame. Eventually the chef comes out to explain that that’s exactly how the dish should be served! Painful stuff.