Archipelago concerns a family gathering on Tresco in the Isles of Scilly. Edward, the son is going to Africa for a year to do charity work and it will be the last time his family see him. A chef has been hired for the week as has a painting teacher. This is a seriously middle class family. The arrival of an Ocado delivery van stuffed with quince jelly interrupting a game of charades based on the plays of Harold Pinter wouldn’t be a surprise.
Two things spring to mind on the first watch of Joanna Hogg’s sophomore feature. One is Five Easy Pieces and the other is Waiting for Godot. Which as reference points go is hardly Porky’s 2: Back in the Habit. Rafelson’s Pieces is evoked simply through the act of a family gathering in a remote location and the bones of long parted relationships being picked over. Godot‘s influence is at least as obvious, as all the family are expecting the arrival of the patriarch who (unbelievably) seems to be able to pull this disparate lot together.Other artist’s fingerprints are visible; Ozu rears his head in the long takes and static camera, and again in the confined location and family breakdown and there is a certain level of fun poked at the middle classes which brings Godard at his best (and worst) into view. All in all, Archipelago’s influences and inspirations alone speak of a serious film by an artist serious about her (serious) filmmaking.
The relationships between the characters is what we are here to see. The beautifully rugged landscape is largely ignored, the soundtrack consists of some birdsong and nothing else. The camera stays too long on people so their reactions and inner mechanics are lain bare. Joanna Hogg strips back everything extraneous until only the cold, hardly beating, core of ths family is left on display, broken, yet still limping along, as we must.
The dialogue and it’s delivery is excruciting, jokes that aren’t funny are made, memories are unearthed that should remain buried, wildly differing opinions are voiced and then left unargued as the family are unable to even continue discourse, knowing it to be futile. This is not Loachian, Nil By Mouth British cinema, all broken bottles, sink estates and women screaming “cunt” whilst their husband beats them. Archipelago brings the British traditions of politeness, silent resentment then bitter recriminations to the fore. It is telling that the two genuine emotional outbursts are too uncomfortable for us to witness, occuring firmly off camera we only hear them. A technique Scorcese used in Taxi Driver when Travis apologises over the phone for the adult cinema date, the camera moves away, unable to watch his discomfort and embarrassment.
Calling Archipelago a triumph would be a severe mis-use of such a joyful word. Severe, understated, believably uncomfortable and buried deep, deep, deep down, a streak of humour thin and dry waiting to be discovered. Every scene sits there, blaring silence, screaming indignity and all of it smothered by years and years of emotional repression. There are films that hit the heart, the funny bone or the guts. This aims for the soul and nearly breaks it.
All this and we haven’t mentioned the title. Archipelago (as the DVD cover says): A scattering of Islands in a large expanse of water. Hmmmmm…..says it all really.