Joanna Hogg’s new film Archipelago is an excruciatingly brilliant portrait of an unhappy upper-middle-class family attempting a holiday in the Isles of Scilly with the ostensible purpose of providing a send-off to twenty-something Edward, who is about to spend a year in Africa doing volunteer work to try to fight the spread of AIDS. Three family members show up at the rented house – Edward, his mother Patricia, and his sister Cynthia – and they’re three different flavours of emotionally brittle. Edward is uncertain about his decision to go to Africa and over-sensitive about his perceived lack of support from his family, Patricia is bottled-up but clearly very upset that her estranged husband has failed to turn up at the house, and while the cause of Cynthia’s unhappiness is never made explicit, she’s demonstrably very angry about something. Also present are a cook, a young woman called Rose, who is forced to share the house with all this tension, and an artist friend called Christopher, who has a nice line in wistful pretension but is nonetheless a calming influence.
The film is shot in a clear and unfussy style, and is some ways recalls the work of Mike Leigh, with some highly naturalistic and believable acting and dialogue (it sounds improvised to me, though I’m not sure it was) and many passages that seem somewhat meandering and uneventful. There’s plenty of silence here, and plenty of awkward stilted conversations. After a while though the gears start to change up subtly and we get some masterfully orchestrated scenes of social embarrassment – the bit in the restaurant, for example, had me squirming in my seat so much I almost tipped over into the next row of the cinema. For a film in which basically nothing happens at all, the tension in the second half is barely tolerable, but it’s still somehow compelling. It should be mentioned that there’s a lot of lovely scenery of the island of Tresco to admire here – possibly included as some sort of compensation for the sheer stomach-churningness of the fraught relations on display.
Archipelago is definitely a highly accomplished work, and may be the best film I’ve seen so far this year. Just don’t ask me to sit through it again any time soon.