By Jamie Steiner
Given the annual deluge of releases, discovering a genuinely
exciting and innovative filmmaker is all too rare an occurrence in the
cinema but, when it happens, it is always nothing less than thrilling. When
a British director elicits such a reaction one takes a cursory glance
at the sky, just in case a recently airborne pig has had a malfunction.
Such was the response following the screening of Joanna Hogg’s second
film Archipelago which will require a tremendous effort if it is to be
bettered this year.
Employing a similar framework to her brilliant debut Unrelated (2007),
Hogg returns to the suffocating social sphere of an upper middle class
family as they embark on yet another holiday, this time a cold and
weather beaten island (one of the Isles of Scilly) instead of sun-kissed
Tuscany. However, any surface similarities to Archipelago’s predecessor
is fleeting, its narrative bearing little resemblance other than the
milieu in which it is set.
Arriving on the cusp of his departure to spend a year abroad in Africa, Edward (Tom Hiddlestone) joins his emotionally fragile mother Patricia (Kathy Fahy) and caustic sister Cynthia (Lydia Leonard) for what is classified as a strictly family only affair. Also present is their chef Rose (Amy Lloyd)
and artist Christopher, a friend who, aside from dispensing
philosophical advice, tip-toes cautiously around an unrealised love
affair with Patricia with whom he otherwise shares a close friendship.
Reflecting the title, they are a set of individuals inextricably linked
yet not immediately accessible to the other, buffered by their
self-erected fences from making any solid connection.
Though he is never introduced, the patriarch of the family makes his
presence known via his absence, the marital crisis reverberating
throughout the film. Essentially a character study, each individual
proceeds to be slowly and subtly unravelled, suppressed grievances
expressed through ferocious arguments and antagonistic exchanges. In a
particularly alarming scene, it emerges Edward’s girlfriend has been
banned from accompanying him, dismissed by Cynthia as “just someone [he]
fancies”, even though the consequence will result in him not seeing her
for another year. That Cynthia should be so didactic in defining what
constitutes “family”, going so far as to effectively bar her, is as
significant as Edward’s concession in the first place.
Whilst the entire cast are practically faultless (Lydia
Leonard arguably delivering her best ever performance), it is Tom
Hiddlestone’s Edward who almost steals the show, expertly balancing his
character’s traits and contradictions which could otherwise have
rendered him an unbearable presence. Described by his mother as
possessing “too much empathy”, Edward is at once both sympathetic and
revoltingly wet, accepting almost anything so long as it appeases those
around him whilst on the other hand displaying a genuine and touching
concern for the needs and feelings of others.
Archipelago is a haunting film from a director with genuine vision
and a formidable grasp and understanding of the medium; every image
imbued with meaning and psychological complexity. Everything from the
set design, the cinematography to the editing is sublime and heralds Hogg as arguably Britain’s most innovative and refreshing director as distinctive an auteur as Woody Allen or Eric Rohmer and with as much potential.
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