06 March 2011
This strictly art-house film, the second from Joanna Hogg, lingers long after it’s over. The title’s metaphor loses its subtlety once you watch the trailer, but there is no denying the nuances and the little touches that make Archipelago my favourite film of the year so far.
First shown at last year’s London Film Festival to rave reviews, it is the story of a family reunion. As expected, underneath the trivial, banal regularity of their lives lie tumultuous and strained relationships. Things remain unsaid, emotions remain trapped beneath a stiff veneer of an upper middle class existence. If you throw knives at these people, they will simply ricochet off them.
Going through a quarter-life crisis, Edward (played wonderfully by Tom Hiddleston, who also featured in Hogg’s previous film, Unrelated (2007)) is leaving his well-paying job to volunteer in Africa to teach safe sex. As a farewell, his mother (Kate Fahy) and sister Cynthia (Lydia Leonard) rent a cottage in the Isles of Scilly where the family had spent numerous holidays in.
The absence of the estranged father, whose existence is only glimpsed in several one-sided phone calls, is wonderfully underplayed, without hammering home its significance.
Both the mother and Cynthia think Edward is making a mistake, but only Cynthia voices her opinion in small hissy fits that she throws quite frequently. Edward’s passive resistance is probably a reason why she feels so frustrated.
There are wonderfully comic scenes and great subtle touches in this film, very much inspired by Yasujiro Ozu’s single-take tableaus of everyday life. There is also a little bit of Bergman-esque family drama, with dialogue that cleverly avoids stating the obvious.
Edward’s heartbreakingly cringe-worthy small advances at Rose, the cook hired by the mother for the duration of their visit (played by Amy Lloyd) are simply wonderful. Rose is somebody that he wants to connect to. He feels that he can connect with her, but he fails to see that his family has already established a strict hierarchy between themselves and the hired help, which is essentially what Rose is.
The role and the definition of family is very well attributed to a scene where Edward reveals (to us essentially) that his girlfriend Chloe wasn’t allowed to join them. Cynthia breaks in by reminding him that she is not part of the family. Edward’s insistence that she means a lot for him has no effect on Cynthia - regardless of how we feel about each other, or how big of a part we play in each other’s lives, we are still a family. Deal with it.
Edward doesn’t want to break the ties with his family - on the contrary his coming to the vacation and leaving Chloe behind shows his true affiliation. Even in the face of uncertainty in the future of his relationship, he has already accepted the idea of family forever. A family that he doesn’t like. A family that would not support his decision.
Archipelago is also painfully funny. The scene at the empty restaurant where Cynthia takes the rein to pick a table for lunch is pure comic genius. In another scene, Edward takes up the washing-up duties for one night and a confused and exasperated Rose (who is very well aware of her position) asks him: “Well, what do I do now?”
In Joanna Hogg, there is a very bright light in British (I have to reluctantly add) art-house cinema.