When you see a dictionary definition of the film’s title on the DVD cover you know you’re in ‘earnest independent film’ territory and this British flick would have been completely off my radar if not for my (ahem) interest in Tom Hiddleston.
Made for a tiny budget in 2010 Archipelago is written and directed by Joanna Hogg and is an excellent yet uncomfortable depiction of a family in crisis.
Edward (Tom Hiddleston) is giving up a job in the City to undertake voluntary work in Africa for a year. Before he leaves he joins his mother Patricia (Kate Fahy) and older sister Cynthia (Lydia Leonard) at their holiday home on Tresco for a family reunion. They are joined by Patricia’s art teacher mentor Christopher (Christopher Baker) and a hired cook Rose (Amy Lloyd). The father, William, intends to join them but is delayed and never appears.
What follows is an often excruciating, sometimes comic yet extremely well observed portrayal of an upper middle-class family falling apart.
Edward is sincere and well intentioned yet clearly conflicted about his decision to go to Africa and is searching for his path while trying not to upset anyone. Cynthia by contrast is brittle, angry and constantly finding fault with everyone and everything around her. Patricia is fragile and hangs by a thread, seemingly lost without her husband’s presence. Christopher is a calming and often wise presence who becomes a sort of father-figure to Edward and Rose is the outsider stuck in the middle, an unwilling witness to the familial fallout and at one point, the focus of Edward’s embarrassing almost-seduction. William is present only in family conversation and Patricia’s increasingly desperate telephone calls (of which we only hear her side), but he looms large and one feels that much of the family’s dysfunction and unhappiness is due to his absence, emotionally and physically throughout their lives, and not just on this holiday.
The shot composition is interesting with very few close-ups, a lot of long shots and frames where characters are only partially in view. There are many scenes where the action and dialogue takes places completely out of shot while the camera focuses on the empty space or the reactions of the character/s overhearing them. It gives these scenes great impact and tension and kept me slightly off balance while watching it.
Much of the dialogue felt ad-libbed, often gracelessly mundane, and all the more genuine, and embarrassingly familiar, because of it. The restaurant scene is particularly painful to watch, the more so because I recognised people I know, and myself, in the stifled politeness and passive aggressive sniping! I was struck by the actor’s naturalistic performances and interested to find out that Rose and Christopher were played by non-actors with Amy Lloyd being a real cook and Christopher Baker a successful artist and Joanna Hogg’s real-life art teacher. Their performances didn’t feel at all out of place with the rest of the cast.
There is no background music; the only soundtrack is bird song and ambient background noise. The long silences and stillness add real space and atmosphere and for much of the film I felt like I was trespassing on a private moment, which is part of its genius.
I would highly recommend seeking out this film. It’s carefully structured, nuanced and insightful albeit hard to watch at times. The cast, actor and amateur alike, is superb. And it will particularly resonate with anyone who understands that very middle-class English dread of causing a public scene!
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some feelings to repress…