DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Archipelago

Thursday 5 May 2011


Archipelago (2010) dir. Joanna Hogg
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Lydia Leonard and Amy Lloyd


By Blair Stewart

Featuring a family that's adrift from each other while periodically acting windy and volcanic, Joanna Hogg's Archipelago in hushed tones drags up memories of that most peculiar endurance test over minefields and barbed fences – a family holiday in tight quarters.

On the English Isles of Scilly, the stiff-lipped trio of adult son Edward (Tom Hiddleston), daughter Cynthia (Lydia Leonard) and mother Patricia (Katy Fahy) reunite to see Edward before he's off to Africa for missionary work. The exterior surroundings of weathered, broken trees hemming in the unstable nuclear family are far more hospitable than the interior of their summer house; not for the first time, father has gone AWOL and Patricia is on the phone in the other room talking about it. While his mother's banshee caterwauling seeps through the walls, Ed has sunk into a post-everything ennui with AIDS work as a balm for his stunted growth. And in the next room over, Cynthia's depression has settled into misanthropy. They're joined within the stuffy chamber of mutual acrimony by Rose, the sensible cook (Amy Lloyd) who will no doubt have an anecdote to tell at her own family gathering, and Patricia's painting teacher (Christopher Baker), who toddles about to offer gentle wisdom on dull ears.

The environment of the kitchen becomes damp with Ed's awkwardness when he develops a half-hearted shine to Rose, but just as well, as he could be passing the time until the poisonous fumes clear upstairs (which is unlikely to happen). If the mood was any more unpleasant, the rental car stuffed with my bickering relatives from a traumatic childhood road trip to Disneyworld would arrive - pass me the comic books and kiddie asthma inhaler from the glove compartment please.

A window briefly illuminated with sunlight until the clouds obscure the dark rooms once more, the emotions of Archipelago flutter about without culmination. Patricia and her brood have been stuck in repressive silence for ages, and we're just witnessing the present lousy vacation until future lousy weddings/funerals/reunions. Hogg's interest isn't in mainstream emancipation of the soul but the aesthetics of simmering resentment in off-kilter surroundings, with close-ups avoided for locked-in middle-distance framing heavy on indoor shadows, somewhere between Haneke's interiors and an upper-class fishbowl. The acting, some of which is performed by non-professionals, is uncomfortably good, with Tom Hiddleston's Edward a fine specimen in impotence and Leonard's Cynthia a powder keg bitch. It also helps that the siblings are the strongest written characters in the film.

Archipelago isn't for all tastes despite the intelligence of its construction. Outside of the craggy, inspired setting on the island, the story seems better suited to the stage, where an audience can sweat it out in the same room as the miserables. Otherwise, the work is lacking essential drama. We have walked into the middle of a protracted dispute of mutterings in long-shot, and I was in need of some shouting and a revealing close-up.

Archipelago is a skillfully made film of detail, but one that underwhelmed in ambition.

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