In Archipelago we have an upper middle class mother, her adult son and daughter on holiday on one of the Scilly Isles (mildest part of British isles, off England’s South West coast), as a send-off for the son’s forthcoming time, away from his girlfriend, as a volunteer in Africa. They have arranged for a live-in cook, and the mother is taking painting lessons. It soon transpires not all is so rosy in the (very pretty) gardens as might first appear. The mother and daughter are ill at ease with inviting the cook to join them in meals, and relationships are proving testy. In one excruciating scene the daughter, following a great struggle deciding on the seating arrangements, complains about the food to a restaurant waitress and chef, much to the embarrassment of the others. There are other scenes of silence and repressed emotions, which inevitably must come to a head and involve the absent father, who apparently is something of a bristly shooting type and who disapproves of the thoughtful vegetarian son’s lack of resolve and due sense of career responsibility (an opinion shared by the daughter).
This all may sound painful viewing and too close to middle class English stereotypes, but it’s lifted by the performances, the setting, the shots of landscape and quiet observational style, with limited close ups, contemplative pacing and stillness, sense of off screen-space with shots of empty rooms, stairs and doorways, and the sound of birdsong. However awkward the characters’ repression and silences, i didn’t want it to end. The film may be indebted to, or at least brought to mind Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy, along with Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, Bergman’s Persona, also Rohmer, Ozu, Bresson and with its pheasant shoot even Renoir’s Rules of the Game. Whatever the influences, director and writer Joanna Hogg has still made something her own and (even with the lush almost Mediterranean or sub-tropical vegetation) very British of the material, clearly as at home with the characters as with the sometimes wild, windy weather. The film seems to me to transcend caricature, offering wise insights and hints of satirical bite along the way.
I understand Hogg’s previous film Unrelated, set in Tuscany and involving another (sunnier) middle-class holiday, was well thought of. I look forward to more films by her and it will be interesting to see how far her repertoire expands