Contains some minor spoilers
Given the annual deluge of releases, discovering a genuinely exciting and innovative filmmaker is all too rare an occurrence in the cinema but, when it happens, it is always nothing less than thrilling. When a British director elicits such a reaction one takes a cursory glance at the sky, just in case a recently airborne pig has had a malfunction. Such was the response following the screening of Joanna Hogg’s second film Archipelago which will require a tremendous effort if it is to be bettered this year.
Employing a similar framework to her brilliant debut Unrelated (2007), Hogg returns to the suffocating social sphere of an upper middle class family as they embark on yet another holiday, this time a cold and weather beaten island (one of the Isles of Scilly) instead of sun-kissed Tuscany. However, any surface similarities to Archipelago’s predecessor is fleeting, its narrative bearing little resemblance other than the milieu in which it is set.
Arriving on the cusp of his departure to spend a year abroad in Africa, Edward (Tom Hiddlestone) joins his emotionally fragile mother Patricia (Kathy Fahy) and caustic sister Cynthia (Lydia Leonard) for what is classified as a strictly family only affair. Also present is their chef Rose (Amy Lloyd) and artist Christopher, a friend who, aside from dispensing philosophical advice, tip-toes cautiously around an unrealised love affair with Patricia with whom he otherwise shares a close friendship. Reflecting the title, they are a set of individuals inextricably linked yet not immediately accessible to the other, buffered by their self-erected fences from making any solid connection.
Though he is never introduced, the patriarch of the family makes his presence known via his absence, the marital crisis reverberating throughout the film. Essentially a character study, each individual proceeds to be slowly and subtly unravelled, suppressed grievances expressed through ferocious arguments and antagonistic exchanges. In a particularly alarming scene, it emerges Edward’s girlfriend has been banned from accompanying him, dismissed by Cynthia as “just someone [he] fancies”, even though the consequence will result in him not seeing her for another year. That Cynthia should be so didactic in defining what constitutes “family”, going so far as to effectively bar her, is as significant as Edward’s concession in the first place.
Whilst the entire cast are practically faultless (Lydia Leonard arguably delivering her best ever performance), it is Tom Hiddlestone’s Edward who almost steals the show, expertly balancing his character’s traits and contradictions which could otherwise have rendered him an unbearable presence. Described by his mother as possessing “too much empathy”, Edward is at once both sympathetic and revoltingly wet, accepting almost anything so long as it appeases those around him whilst on the other hand displaying a genuine and touching concern for the needs and feelings of others.
Archipelago is a haunting film from a director with genuine vision and a formidable grasp and understanding of the medium; every image imbued with meaning and psychological complexity. Everything from the set design, the cinematography to the editing is sublime, arguably heralding Hogg as Britain’s most innovative and refreshing director, as distinctive an auteur as Woody Allen or Eric Rohmer and with as much potential.