Saturday, 5 March 2011

Archipelago (Joanna Hogg, 2010) Review

Tom Hiddleston and Amy Lloyd in Archipelago (2010)

Imagine if Ken Loach directed an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. That's actually a pretty apt description of what this brilliant British cringe-com is, and it's Joanna Hogg's follow-up to her 2007 debut Unrelated - itself a quiet character study set on a holiday from hell. And in a way that would have been just as fitting a title for this offering, which serves up a dysfunctional family on the verge of implosion, and such is the level of caustic friction between its members you'd be forgiven for thinking they were sworn enemies rather than direct relatives. They're obnoxious, selfish and completely pompous - a fact for which some critics have attacked the film. For me that's like criticizing Saving Private Ryan (1998) for containing a war; it's rather the point. It's the exact same fire Noah Baumbach comes under, but he shoots his characters through a distant, non-judgmental and subjective lens, and is fully aware of how horrid his characters are - they are put through squirm inducing pain and suffering, and the audience is allowed to laugh at them and judge them. That also serves as an apt description of Hogg's new drama, which deserves a wider release than it's destined to receive.

I use Ken Loach as a comparison not so much in terms of aesthetic, but social reflection and essaying of the class system (although this is a higher class than the one displayed in Kes, 1969, for example). In fact Hogg's aesthetic is shaded like a pastel painting, and the restrained visuals are very carefully drawn. The camera is always static, the scope never especially wide. Although the island sometimes looks beautiful, it is a natural beauty evoked from nature rather than trick photography. It could be called minimalist, but then the same charge is filed at Mike Leigh, and this is more aesthetically aware than even his most cinematic film Another Year (2010). It's actually very hard to describe the visual texture of Archipelago as it is both rough and soft, ugly and pretty. There has been a very conscious decision to not use a light filter, which often makes even daytime scenes very dark. This must be to reflect how unhappy the holiday is, although it's Hogg's most obvious move if that is the case.

There is one scene in particular that, in my experience, has come under a lot of flack. It's a scene where the family go out to a very awkward dinner and one family member decides the meat isn't quite cooked. It's a long, protracted scene with such awkwardly lingering stretches of time between dialogue that you could be forgiven for not knowing when to breathe again. It's a very funny scene that ends on a kind of sitcom friendly punchline, and the criticism seems to be that for this reason the film is obvious and badly written. For me the fact that the punchline is so obvious is in many ways the actual punchline of the scene - Hogg is a smarter writer than to end up at "Well mine's lovely" so in a way that line is a reminder that you should have been paying attention to what came before - the subtle facial twitches that reveal shades of unspoken character, and the simplicity of the shot-reverse-shot which cuts at just the right time to reveal the next disgraced sneer or squirming grimace. As the most pronounced and familiar gag in the whole film, it's also caustically underplayed - like a 'fuck you' to all those slouching at the back who were expecting a film with jokes. The punchlines in this film serve as scenario summations, and what matters is the road we took to get there. The same can be said for a scene involving lobster which ends on the line: "probably not a conversation you want to have, being a vegetarian." Funny, but shaded with a quiet despair; the lobsters are a perfect metaphor for the character, slowly coming to the boil. This weekend should end in a howl of rage, but the characters are so repressed and undignified that the pain must go on and on and on until it becomes lodged in the subconscious of the viewer.

Cynics will be calling the film out for exactly what it is - overprivileged toffs sitting in rooms moaning and occasionally taking a walk. Fair enough, and I concede that these characters are utterly hopeless - but that's not so much a problem as how they are portrayed by the filmmaker. Hogg portrays them in much the same way as Baumbach or Larry David would - with a gently anarchic smile and an assurance in putting bad people through the wringer for amusement. Some will find the exercise pointless and self indulgent, but to some it will be an absolute treat. Count me in that second category.

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