Dir:- Joanna Hogg
Starr:- Christopher Baker, Kate Fahy, Tom Hiddleston, Lydia Leonard, Amy Lloyd
One aspect of cinema that has almost been forgotten – unless your name is Peter Greenaway – is the execution of the carefully framed shot, so that action occurs within and without the frame, but the camera has no inclination toward following it. With the majority of films nowadays desperately rushing about computerised landscapes trying to convince us of their exquisitely rendered universes, Archipelago, one of the best British films I’ve seen since Mike Leigh’s Naked, seems all the more unusual and singular in its reluctance to move, both visually and emotionally. It took me well over half an hour to realise the depth and intricacy of the films patterning, but when I did notice I was left marvelling at how much energy and drama such fixed camera shots could generate. Archipelago is at once a very quiet film and a film that never once falls silent (although without a discernible music score the soundtrack throbs and thrums with the remote sounds of an omnipresent nature), it has a static camera throughout and yet meticulously captures the restlessness of loneliness.
The film, stylistically, strongly reminded me of the opening half hour of Bergman’s nightmare of isolation The Hour of the Wolf, but rather than a relationship falling under the magnifying glass of the camera lens, in Archipelago it is a fractured and fractious upper-class British family. Much like the Bergman movie, much of the action of Archipelago is never fully completed. It is as if the director Hogg were inviting us to eavesdrop, but from a respectful distance. It is this uncomfortably fine line between public (social) and private (personal) that Hogg subtly treads, pulling you in with an ever greater sense of fascination and horror.
Patricia, Cynthia and Edward are a well-to-do family, who Cynthia has gathered together in a holiday home on the island of Tresco (one of the Scilly Isles, off the tip of Cornwall). Patricia, the matriarch, seems to be always on tenterhooks, but finds some kind of relaxation in the painting classes organised and guided by a friend called Christopher (played by the artist Christopher Baker). Cynthia is Patricia’s daughter and seems to be a tightly wound spring, ready to snap, or viciously uncoil, at even the slightest provocation. Edward is the seemingly born-again son, who has packed in his city job and is now looking for something that will give his life richer meaning, hence his impending departure to Africa, as part of a sex education charity campaign. The family have a history with the location, clearly from happier times, when they operated as a more conventional ‘nuclear’ unit, but this would appear to be the first time in a long while they have ventured upon such a holiday (or retreat, as it comes to feel). Cynthia and Patricia are supposedly seeing Edward off, as he is due to leave for Africa in a fortnight, however that doesn’t fully explain their motives, which are much more obviously selfish and personal.
At the heart of the film (and I would argue acting as an actual locus or viewpoint for much of the action) is a young female chef, called Rose, who has been hired by Patricia to attend to the families culinary needs over the duration of the holiday, without apparently having been informed of what might constitute a menu (hence her wonderfully muted surprise whenever another item of produce is foisted upon her unexpectedly). Rose is from Northamptonshire and Hogg is crafty enough to make this character as far from a ‘conventional’ idea of ‘working class’, as possible. In effect Rose is a ‘middle class’ Home Counties professional and it is her professionalism that creates the most obvious barrier between her world and the world of the people she serves. The figure within the family who is least respectful of this professional distance, and yet most understanding of the ‘strange’ awkwardness of Rose’s situation as reluctant witness to the family schisms and squabbles, is Edward. In one scene he passively-aggressively chastises his mother and sister for not having the ‘decency’ to allow Rose to eat with them (a sequence that takes on all the more significance when we later discover that Edward is particularly upset that his ‘family’ will not allow his girlfriend, Chloe, to join them on this holiday). Later in the movie Edward’s simpering ‘niceness’ takes on an unsettling, and wholly accidental, stalkerish quality, as he proceeds to follow Rose’s activities around the kitchen, silently staring until Rose feels compelled to puncture the rising discomfort with a benign question. Rose is forever framed deep in the shot, within the scene, but outside of the family, a blatant reminder of each of the family members own isolation and alienation.
Despite the exceptionally slow, almost glacial pacing of the movie, with many shots reminiscent of the wonderful arctic framings of Glenn Gould, in 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, the film is fascinating without ever straying over into outright involvement. Freighted with dramatic tension, Archipelago is also a wryly comic treat, with Hogg utilising much of the uncomfortable atmosphere and prickly tension within the family to humorous ends (Edward’s thwarted attempts at self-sufficiency, the guinea fowl episode in the empty restaurant, the off-putting discussion about lobster murder). The comedy-of-manners elements of the movie perhaps find their most effective voice in the character of Christopher, the art-mentoring friend of Patricia. With his painfully liberal circumlocutions and artistic sensibilities Christopher is both the figure most at ease with solitude and the person most obviously trying to appear at ease in the generalised awkwardness of the family situation. Are we to assume that Christopher is more than an acquaintance to Patricia? Like many things in Archipelago, Hogg keeps it wilfully mysterious, without the situation being too obscure and alienating. Christopher gives lots of vague advice about capturing colour, a metaphor that, with the help of some breathtaking landscape shots, helps to establish the personal and idiosyncratic views of family life that Hogg is exploring. He also serves as a surrogate father-figure to Edward, in the absence of his own father, doling out advice about following what you feel most strongly about.
What makes Archipelago such a brilliant and original cinematic work is that quality of eavesdropping that dovetails so well with the mysteries Hogg unfurls around her family figures. No scene is complete, with the actors either wandering into shot, or wondering out of shot before the main thrust of their conversation has been reached. In the movies frightening crescendo (suitably occurring in the middle) another painful dining-table vignette devolves into a barely articulate screaming match between mother and daughter, that highlights the undercurrents of envy and bitterness almost as brilliantly as Cynthia’s complaining about the guinea fowl in the restaurant. Hogg once again resists wholly invading the private and at this moment the audience is made aware of Rose’s horror, which becomes our own horror. A lesser moment of release comes when Patricia finally confronts her absent ex-husband, as he calls yet again to say he will not be in attendance. The repetition of a statement builds up that enclosing wall that Patricia has found almost impossible to breakdown since his departure. The treacherous and stormy seas of the picture that is hidden, for being too dark and negative, seems an almost trite way of rounding the film off and I would prefer to dwell on the actions of Rose on her final night of service, as she carefully puts her knives back into her carry-case. Aside from these explicit visual metaphors, there are many more of such inscrutable oddness that they are both compelling and frightening (in particular the sculpted head that Edward comes across toward the end of the film). Another of Hogg’s fine achievements in this movie is the way in which she renders meaningful the inexplicable elements of entitled upper class living, such as the pheasant shoot, the champagne picnic, or the country garden. By making Rose the unknowing outsider and servant, Hogg makes her the conduit through which these curiosities are demystified and normalised, a process to which the inner workings of related individuals can only be approached in the riddling circumlocutions of a ‘Christopher’ figure.