By Marty Mulrooney
An archipelago is a chain or cluster of islands. It is also the name of director Joanna Hogg’s second feature film, rather fittingly set on Tresco, the second largest island of the Isles of Scilly, which form an archipelago off the south-western tip of the Cornish peninsula of Great Britain. Shot from predominantly static camera angles and with no soundtrack to speak of, Archipelago offers an almost voyeuristic insight into the life of a family brought together for a quiet cottage holiday, before being pushed apart by the realisation that they are actually strangers.
Art is subjective, just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I cannot deny that Archipelago is a beautiful film – Tresco is indeed a beautiful location – even if it does show some pretty terrible weather, seldom allowing a ray of sunlight to shine through. However, I would argue that the basic premise of Archipelago would have been better suited to a short film than a feature length movie. At nearly two hours long, it can often feel bloated despite its slightness.
The central plot follows Edward (Tom Hiddleston) as he travels to Tresco to join his sister Cynthia (Lydia Leonard) and mother Patricia (Kate Fahy) for a farewell trip before he goes to do voluntary work in Africa. Also joining them is hired cook Rose (Amy Lloyd) and painting teacher Christopher (Christopher Baker). It soon becomes apparent that as a family they are all extremely uncomfortable in each other’s company – Edward would rather seek out conversation with cook Rose and painter Christopher than face his own flesh and blood. He finds more solace in strangers.
What follows are a series of events that appear relatively mundane upon first glance, but that soon prove to be far more complex and deep. At least, that seems to be the idea. There are certainly moments that work rather well: a humorous chat between Rose and Edward about cooking lobsters, an awkward restaurant scene that feels all too familiar, a one-sided shouting match down the end of a telephone receiver. However, this is no escaping the fact that this is basically two hours of watching people do fairly regular, middle-class things, peppered with prevalent moments of unease.
Perhaps I am an uncultured luddite who has no appreciation of the finer art of filmmaking, but Archipelago truly perplexed me. On the one hand, I wouldn’t say that the film is boring. It managed to hold my interest from beginning to end as I watched the different relationships between the various characters. There are plenty of films and TV shows that offer insight into working class Brits, so to take a glance slightly further upwards within the class system offered a welcome change.
However, much of this insight arises because of the way the film is made – it feels almost uncannily realistic at times – rather than due to the film itself. Of course, The Guardian loved Archipelago, awarding it five stars and describing it as “quietly outstanding”… but I must ask, why? The characters are neither particularly likeable nor dislikeable, instead staying firmly rooted on the fence – although it should be noted that the acting itself is uniformly strong within the limitations of the script. Nothing of note actually happens during the film either: we can tell the entire family are thoroughly uncomfortable at the very start and, although cracks do form throughout, not much has really changed by the end. Perhaps that is the point… but then again, is that a story really worth telling?
Archipelago practically screams ‘art film’, ironically becoming self-referential through the character of painting instructor Christopher (played by Christopher Baker, an actual English landscape painter in real life), who constantly talks about his paintings in a way that could either be insightful, or complete and utter nonsense. I watch films to be moved, to be captivated and to engage with characters and storylines. I don’t watch films to pick whatever scraps I can from the carcass of a gutted-out, cut-back experience slapped with an ‘art house’ label. Archipelago’s greatest failing is that it actually only manages to offer half a film.
5 OUT OF 10