Archipelago, Joanna Hogg, 114 mins (15)

Joanna Hogg's first film was about a repressed, middle-class family on an awful holiday. And her next film is more of the same – but it's an exquisite variation on the theme

Reviewed,Jonathan Romney
Sunday 06 March 2011 01:00

Please don't take it the wrong way if I say that Archipelago is a minor film. It's minor in the sense that it's in a minor key, dealing with elusive emotions and using a restricted palette. But I also mean that Archipelago doesn't come in with a blare of trumpets to let you know that it is a Major British Film. It simply quietly gets on with its business, blithely unconcerned whether it's making an impression or not.

Am I underselling the film? Possibly, but then writer-director Joanna Hogg specialises in dramas about people who tend to undersell themselves – who never get round to saying what's really on their minds. And then, naturally, they explode. Like Hogg's remarkable 2007 debut Unrelated, Archipelago is largely about things unsaid, and the excruciating situations in which repressed emotions then surge to the surface.

Archipelago is about a group of upper-middle-class English people on holiday, all having a wretched time – which was pretty much exactly the topic of Unrelated. Yes, Archipelago is strikingly similar to its predecessor, but it's a conscious variation on form and themes. The set of characters is smaller, and the locale changes from balmy Tuscany to the stark, overcast island of Tresco in the Scillies. Patricia (Kate Fahy), has rented a house with her two adult children, Edward (Tom Hiddleston) and Cynthia (Lydia Leonard), and they settle in to await the arrival of Patricia's husband, Will. The family are attended by Rose (Amy Lloyd), a cheerful young cook with whom Edward immediately, if awkwardly, clicks – to the horror of Cynthia, a snob who can't believe that her brother is befriending the domestics.

As the narrative unfolds, we learn several things about the family: that Edward is about to leave, with trepidation, for a year's voluntary service in Africa; that Cynthia's particular brand of passive aggression would require an entire new model of Geiger counter to be properly gauged; and that Will's reliability in keeping appointments is in the Godot league.

Hogg draws out her characters' inner states in scenes that variously sketch out the everyday inconsequential – people take bike rides, buy lobsters – or that stage quietly horrible fallings-out. These latter scenes carry (very) muted echoes of Eric Rohmer or, at a stretch, Woody Allen, but the comedy of inarticulacy is closer to a better-enunciated English version of the US indie style known as "mumblecore": here, "poshcore", if you must. One teeth-grinding highlight is a visit to a restaurant, which begins with the family taking ages to decide where they're going to sit: never has the term "faffing about" been so perfectly illustrated. Eventually, they order guinea fowl, and then Cynthia disrupts the calm by – ever so politely, ever so bitterly – complaining that her bird is undercooked, and spitting quiet contempt at the others for not doing likewise.

Hogg casts her film unconventionally, with two non-professionals seeming to play versions of themselves. One is Amy Lloyd, who answered an advert for a cook and ended up playing one – and who takes to the part of Rose with fresh, untrammeled charm, a cool centre amid the storm of agonising. Another is artist Christopher Baker as Christopher, a neighbour who instructs the family in the theory and practice of watercolour, and, indeed, the philosophy of life. The film perhaps over-indulges his musings (and he does look disconcertingly like Tony Blair), but Baker's participation as an ambassador of the real helps give the fiction a nice off-centre spin.

Another variation on Unrelated is that Tom Hiddleston plays the opposite of his character in that film. There, he was an amoral, manipulative alpha male; Edward, by contrast, is a decent, anxious, eager-to-please, and somewhat wet man-child. He will make you cringe – usually in sympathy – but never more so than when he tries to appease a sulking Cynthia with a glove puppet ("I've been a bad, bad badger").

While the actors apply intricate psychological insight to their characters, we're required to bring our own insight too. The true cause of Cynthia's unquenchable rage, for example, is never spelt out. It's left to us to read between the lines as Lydia Leonard gives a terrifically crisp portrayal of a woman who consistently vents her own childishness, volatility and neurosis by complaining that everyone else is childish, volatile and neurotic.

Some viewers may complain that Hogg has virtually remade her debut in this second film, but what we see in Archipelago is an auteur consistency that's familiar in French directors, but rare among Brits, Mike Leigh being an obvious exception. Even so, Hogg brings a new fine-tuning to Archipelago, not least in the visual control: in Ed Rutherford's photography of moody, static, claustrophobic interiors and in the windblown, weirdly tropical Tresco landscapes. In its almost militantly undemonstrative way, Archipelago is a major achievement – a very adult film about people who can't quite grow up.

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Next Week:

Jonathan Romney takes a stroll in Norwegian Wood, an adaptation of the Haruki Murakami bestseller

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