Thursday, 12 July 2012

The discreet harm of the bourgeoisie: Archipelago (Joanna Hogg, 2010)


The director who seems to best understand the English bourgeoisie at this moment in time is Joanna Hogg. Her films Unrelated (2008) and Archipelago (2010) both deal with the exquisite tortures of middle-class holidays which descend from conviviality into confrontation and conflict. In her debut feature, Unrelated, it was an Italian villa somewhere in ‘Chianti-shire’ which provided the setting, and the focus was on the midlife crisis of Anna (Kathryn Worth) as she wondered with which generational grouping in the holiday party she should align herself. In Archipelago, Hogg’s second feature, the focus is more diffuse, stretching across a number of family members gathered together for a holiday on the Scilly Islands, including grown-up brother and sister Edward (Tom Hiddleston) and Cynthia (Lydia Leonard), their mother Patricia (Kate Fahy), their hired cook Rose (Amy Lloyd) and their painting instructor Christopher (Christopher Baker). The occasion for the gathering is the son’s last family holiday before he embarks for voluntary work in Africa, an updated version of the ‘white man’s burden’ for upstanding young Englishmen. The film is careful not to play this for obvious satire, instead imbuing his social concern with sincerity and a sense of vocation, even if it is slightly wavering and uncertain (Hiddleston plays a quite different character from the cruel cocksure boy he portrayed in Hogg’s Unrelated). ‘Africa’ figures in Archipelago was a different kind of world beyond the confines of the middle-class family, the possibility of a less hampered existence but also a more dangerous one. Not that the Tresco holiday home is a quiet but dull pastoral idyll – anything but. Edward’s missionary impulses seem to bring out the worst in Cynthia who accuses him of self-important self-righteousness cloaked by false modesty. Tom’s immanent departure and the awkward friendship he strikes up with Rose, asking her about her life and wanting to invite her to dine with the family, seem to act as twin flashpoints for Cynthia’s anger, manifesting first in behind-the-back sniping and second in outright argument. The film’s outstanding set-piece is undoubtedly the fraught group outing to a restaurant which goes from bad (not being able to settle on the best place to sit and moving tables several time) to worse (Cynthia’s passive-aggressive response to what she perceives to be an undercooked guinea fowl; Lydia Leonard’s performance is brilliantly excruciating here). As the holiday goes increasingly awry, the mother attempts to intervene, albeit ineffectually, and Hogg punctuates the drama with a series of phone calls to the absent patriarch (who is meant to be there but keeps being unaccountably delayed) which begin with expressions of maternal contentment, and how wonderful it is to be gathered together like old times, but soon deteriorate into desperate pleading with him to come and help and finally furious accusations of neglect. In less coolly assured hands, it could be a cliché but Hogg’s directorial control and her sympathetic immersion in the milieu of her characters insures that Archipelago presents with verve and astringent originality the old truism that the comfortably-off family can be anything but comfortable at times.


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