Archipelago (2010)

26 March 2011

In the opening close-up shot of Joanna Hogg's magnificent second film Archipelago, a painter adds touches to a canvas full of striking colours. The shot reveals the canvas in full as well as the landscape that has inspired the painting behind it. Whereas the painting itself is vivid and abstract, the filmic image couldn't be any more austere or the soundtrack serene. The contradiction is wry and the message is clear: this is a film that observes and emphasises the colour not immediately apparent in the lives of a certain class of people in a certain daily context.
An archipelago is a group of islands scattered in a large body of water, and Hogg's film concerns itself with the family holiday of Edward (Tom Hiddleston), his older sister Cynthia (Lydia Leonard) and their mother Patricia (Kate Fahy) on Tresco, the second largest island in the Ilses of Scilly off the Cornish coast. Also present is their hired cook Rose (real-life cook Amy Lloyd) and family friend and professional artist Chris (real-life painter Christopher Baker). Increasingly, the film's title carries allegorical significance, as we observe in what has been described as chamber piece the emotional suppressions and outbursts as a result of mounting tensions: this is an extended family comprising disparate personalities brought together as a collective through circumstance and tradition.

On first appearance, Hogg's work seems stubbornly resistant and headstrong in its static framing, natural lighting and that casual sense of improvised overlapping dialogue; it's also unapologetic in its obvious symbolism and self-reflexive exchanges that have an immediate sense of self-vindication on Hogg's part. Later in the film, for example, Chris, whose canvas opened the film, explains his method to Patricia, to whom he has been offering art tutorials: before anything else, he tells his friend, he "observes", in order to get a general sense of and feeling for the scene that will eventually become a complete painting. Rather than go straight in for precise details, he trusts these will emerge as part of his focus on the wider work; earlier in the film, he cautions both Patricia and her daughter Cynthia to always keep the "big picture" in mind, that "chaos is good" for the artist.

This is apparently Hogg's own modus operandi: "Maybe because I have come to filmmaking later in life," she says, "I can do what Francis Bacon said, which was 'throw paint on the canvas and see what happens.'" Less genuinely spontaneous than it appears - which might be an achievement in itself - Archipelago seems to be the result of a complex, unconventional process. Hogg explains, "The writing I do is not conventional screenwriting. I have endless notebooks on the go and rather than translate these into a neat screenplay, which would kill my ideas stone dead, they get poured straight into the film as it is being made."

This might seem obscure, or be difficult to grasp, unless you're actually involved in the process itself. Perhaps knowing the film was shot in script order and that its cast lived on Tresco for the entire duration of shooting helps provide a clearer picture. At any rate, it seems a product of a less-than-rigid but more-than-improvisatory method of working, similar to that of, say, Mike Leigh; and Hogg's film resembles in its observational tone last year's other emotionally authentic film, Leigh's Another Year. (As a side note, Landon Palmer's 'Culture Warrior' column on Film School Rejects earlier this week offers insight to notions of cinematic spontaneity.)

Indeed, perhaps the most arresting element of this film, beyond its terrific, spot-on performances, is the feeling that its "story" emerges, like the finer details in Chris's paintings, from a general observational starting point. The film isn't trite, doesn't give off an air of premeditated caution or moral or political posturing. Arpichelago is that rare British film that doesn't neglect form for content, or vice versa, but instead belongs to a trend of rich, suggestive art films that take as their starting points people and the daily politics that emerge between them, developing character and dramatic tension by following through with honesty the repeated rituals of everyday life.

The characters feel real here, which is why the film becomes daring and provocative when it places its established relationships into a hitherto alien context. The scene in the empty restaurant, for instance - which echoes the no-less ritualised but more familiar picnic scene from earlier - is the point at which previous hints towards these characters' individual sensibilities is truly tested. If up to this point Edward, Cynthia and Patricia have only had themselves to interact with about whether or not Edward should or shouldn't make conversation with Rose, their cook, the restaurant scene introduces a new social element that becomes excrutiating to watch - not subdued but heightened, somehow, by Ed Rutherford's underlit HD imagery - as Cynthia complains (wrongly) about what she assumes is undercooked guinea fowl. It's a brilliant scene made all the more challenging by allowing us to remain watching it even when (cringe) the chef himself comes over to the table at Cynthia's request ("that's actually dangerous," she keeps saying about the colour of her meat).

As I wrote here last month, there's something incredibly refreshing about being able to "sometimes just watch people of whatever class interact in an authentic manner - too many films these days take such daily domestic politics for granted". Just as that restaurant scene might say something about Englishness in relation to dining out, though, the film in general speaks to more than just "a middle class family not communicating". As part of its authentic observations, there are two scenes in which Rose is delivered fresh meat to prepare for Edward, Cynthia, Patricia and Chris. The first is lobster, which she of course boils alive; the second is pheasant, which she must pluck before cooking. In both instances, there are extended dialogue exchanges on the preparation process; just as this allows Hogg not to dwell on it with what might have been preachy imagery, so Rose's services allow the family the privilege of eating what they like without having to consider the cruelty involved.

As Rose boils the lobsters, she explains what she is doing to the inquisitive Edward, whose sensitive, compassionate nature is clear when he both laments and freaks out at the violent price of eating well. Edward's sensitivity and compassion is derided by Cynthia throughout the film, from his overreaching hospitality to Rose ("you don't have to make friends with the cook") to his decision to volunteer as a sex education teacher for a year in Africa ("he's got too much empathy", his own mother adds). In the lobster cooking scene, there's an implied questioning on Hogg's part that sides with Edward's sensitivity, something that becomes an onscreen comeuppance, of sorts, served to Cynthia when she goes storming out of the house after biting into buckshot in her pheasant.

It's this careful, probing commitment that makes Hogg's film self-examining in some way. "Archipelago is less autobiographical than Unrelated [her debut feature], but more personal," she says. "I was ambivalent about whether I had the right to portray people close to me. I decided to base all the characters around myself, so I wouldn't hurt anyone. What I've ended up with is a rather unflattering self-portrait, in which I've created a kind of internal family that bears no relation to my family." Regardless of autobiographical sources, Hogg's characters and the relationships between them, are intriguingly and honestly painted, and the film itself, rich in detail and general fabric, creates for itself a position from which it is able to say much about life.