Archipelago is a film about bored, boring posh people on an autumn holiday in the Scilly Isles, getting themselves into a tizz over nothing more than their own unimportant neuroses. As a précis it doesn’t sound particularly promising – but somehow Joanna Hogg has crafted a quiet, clever and unsettling tale that lures you in and refuses to let go.
This is unapologetically arthouse fare, ticking all the boxes from ‘contemplative’ pacing and static camerawork to the muted overall look. In certain scenes the actors are nothing more than silhouettes against the backdrop of dim natural light coming through the window. The setting is a purposefully uncomfortable one: the kind of English country cottage in which all the doors are slightly too small and any creak of movement can be heard throughout.
We’re in the presence of the Leighton family – mother Patricia and her grown-up children, Edward and Cynthia. Edward is about to spend a year in Africa but is unsure why; Cynthia, a horrible piece of work, picks away at his uncertainty whilst mother attempts to placate but only ends up irritating them both. There’s a lot of sitting about in rooms with nothing better to do than simmer.
They have a cook, the one sane character, with whom Edward occasionally enters into awkward conversation. Their father is expected to join them but never does; in his stead is an artist friend, Christopher. Teaching the family oil painting, he is set up as the voice of reason but in fact he spends his time spouting earnest, softly-spoken bullshit about such matters as “embracing chaos”; at one point, without a hint of irony, he describes a colour as “voilety orangey voilety orangey violet coming through the orange”.
Watching these horrible people laid bare by Hogg’s unrelenting long takes is an unusual experience. At first, people around me in the cinema were laughing at seemingly random points, as if this were some kind of comedy of social mores without any actual jokes. Then, as the cutting remarks sharpen and the film’s deliberate rhythm begins to draw you in, suddenly you realise you’re in the grip of a strange kind of horror movie, squirming in your seat, waiting for something truly awful to happen.
When the moment does arrive, it is exquisite. We hear it but don’t see it (in fact we see someone else hearing it, doubling the impact) and the best I can say is that is feels like a real row rather than a ‘film row’ – a blistering torrent of incomprehensible shrieks and vicious effing and blinding that is genuinely shocking. In the aftermath, the characters spend a day secluded in their separate rooms – only to return to polite normality when dinner is served again the next evening.
I left the cinema with the strange impression I’d seen something quite brilliant, struck by how such an apparently sparse, empty film could end up feeling so rich in meaning. A downright unpleasant watch – for all the right reasons.