Joanna Hogg’s first film, Unrelated was a joy: a real comedy of manners gently poking fun at the middle classes on holiday in Tuscany (read my 3 star review on www.vickyatthemovies.com), yet with a convincing storyline centering round an older woman’s hankering for youth. Hogg again takes the middle classes on holiday, this time a mother (Kate Fahy) and her two children, daughter Cynthia ‘C’ (Lydia Leonard) and son Edward (Tim Hiddlestone, so marvellous in Unrelated) who is about to go to Africa for 11 months to work, completely unqualified, for an African HIV NGO…how familiar is that misdirected philanthropy these days?
The film opens promisingly in her trademark style with beautiful birdsong, and a long shot of a man painting the rugged scenery: seas, skies and shore (reminded me of that doggerel: I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and sky….). It is rather wonderful to watch a film with simply no music whatsoever. But this is where the problem begins: in Unrelated there is plenty of banter, conversation, jokes and high jinks, but in Archipelago Hogg allows her other director’s indulgence full reign. For there is no script….and when the characters do speak they stutter, stumble and mutter banalities. It is excruciating, and I squirmed in my seat throughout the whole film, hoping that something interesting might happen and someone might find a coherent voice.
But it was not to be: the family are holidaying in the Isles of Scilly, waiting for the Godot-like ‘Dad’ while they enjoy Ed’s last week in civilisation. They have hired a sweet girl Rose (Amy Lloyd) to cook for them: as C rips into Ed mercilessly, while the pathetic mother looks on, we discover that Rose has a much bigger burden to bear than the horrible spoiled brats, who are as insular and unable to communicate as the film’s title suggests. I couldn’t believe in the sort of behaviour exhibited by the three main characters, in particular in the much-praised restaurant scene, where C sends back the ‘pink’ partridge. As a mother, I would have put a stop to all that nonsense sharpish. Poor Rose is the only credible person in the film; the artist (Christopher Baker) could have been simpatico had been able to string a sentence together.
In mitigation, it must be said that the hand held camera shots of the (aforementioned) sea and sky – quite a lot of those – and of the Isles of Scilly are simply beautiful; the photography is stunning, very chiaroscuro, reflecting the changing weather and moodiness of the place. But I found the lack of any lighting on set, for instance inside the house, completely mystifying. Apart from being illogical it was hard to see what was happening; but then I realisied that quite often we are just looking at a room with no-one in it, for several seconds (those long shots again….), the only clue to activity the sounds of people clomping around, crashing pans in the kitchen or some other nosies off – crying, shouting, the wind….
Perhaps it was a bum choice of film; as many of my readers know, we have just lost our daughter. We genuinely had no idea that this film was going to examine a dysfunctional family in such an uncritical and self-indulgent way, would be dealing with bereavement, and would be so full of interminable silences during which one mulls over all of these things, while thinking ‘Who are these stupid people? Are we like this? What on earth do they have to be so depressed and bad tempered about?Why am I still sitting here watching this pretentious rubbish?’. But dear reader, being professional, we stayed to the very end….just in case we were wrong.