ARCHIPELAGO directed by Joanna Hogg (UK, 2010)

In the age of digital cinema and crowd pleasing blockbusters, social realism has largely gone out of fashion.

Top grossing movies are often those with the most elaborate special effects. while modest, people-centred dramas or comedies tend to rattle along at such a rapid pace as though directors are worried that if viewers are given time to draw breath they’ll realise how superficial these  ‘entertainment’ packages really are.

Thankfully, there are still filmmakers out there who focus on stories with genuine substance and depth. Joanna Hogg is one of them.

Archipelago is a slow-moving, at times static, film that many could lose patience with but which stands as a welcome antidote to the contrived story-lines and stereotypical characters you find in so many so-called ‘serious’ dramas.

Joanna Hogg

The plot, such as it is. centres on a family holiday in the ruggedly picturesque yet largely deserted coastal landscape of The Scilly Isles.

Edward (Tom Hiddleston) is about give up a career in banking to go to Africa for 11 months as a volunteer giving guidance on safe sex to counteract the AIDS epidemic.

His sister and mother have organised the vacation as a kind of send-off. They have rented a house which they all stayed on previous, happier, occasions.

This time, the absence of the father is just one of the many sources of tension. Patricia (Kate Fahy), the mother, has increasingly angry phone calls to her husband but we do not see or hear him and never fully understand why he cannot be there.

It is also unclear why his sister Cynthia (Lydia Leonard) is such a cow. You sense that she resents Edward’s break from the rat race but also that she has other deep-rooted personal problems.

It emerges that Edward actually has serious doubts about his future but it is quickly evident that he will gain no solace from this ill-conceived family gathering.

The fundamental problem is that these three don’t really get along and in many ways seem like strangers to each other. They are away from their homes and while the island setting is peaceful and comfortable the atmosphere is anything but relaxed.

With the unspoken resentments and awkward silences there’s a distinctly Chekovian element to the work but I doubt that it would have worked so well in the theatre. The fixed framing of the scenes, absence of close-ups or music and long takes makes this a work of pure cinema. It’s not surprising that Joanna Hogg names Robert Bresson, another director who favours this type of minimalism, as one of her key influences. We see only what the camera sees and at key moments where tempers flare the action occurs off-screen.

The dialogue is naturalistic and never seems scripted although Hogg has stated that it was not improvised. At times the stiffness and formality of these educated English types is so deadly accurate it made me squirm in  painful recognition. A prime example is in a posh restaurant where Cynthia’s complaints of undercooked food contrast with the general reluctance by the others to create a scene.

Christopher Baker plays himself and Tom Hiddleston is Edward

Some of the non-family roles are played by non-professional actors, notably Christopher Baker who does what he does in real life, teaches painting. Christopher is a pivotal figure as a benevolent outsider offering paternal advice to Edward and seeking to help Patricia and Cynthia to put what they see around them onto canvas. His instruction could be seen as a commentary on the situation as it unfolds. He speaks of abstraction as a way of seeing beyond the surface realities and explains how embracing chaos can give ideas and make you less concerned about losing control.

As Roger Waters wrote in Pink Floyd’s ‘Time’ “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way” and we see plenty of evidence of this in Archipelago. The slow accumulation of things that are not quite right comes to a head but , in resolutely un-Hollywood fashion,  nothing is resolved and none of the characters can be said to have moved on or grown emotionally.

As they are about to return home, Cynthia says she has borrowed one of her mother’s novels but hasn’t started reading it yet. The book’s title – The Void – is one which could equally apply to this holiday experience because the state of loneliness, emptiness and loss is so strong.

Probably the only thing they have learnt from the experience is that if another family reunion of this kind is suggested, their shared reaction would be to say: “Never again!”