Retrospective Review: Archipelago

By Caz Armstrong

With the recent release of Joanna Hogg‘s critically acclaimed film “The Souvenir”, I have decided to return to Hogg’s previous film, “Archipelago” (2010). The film follows Edward (Tom Hiddleston) and Cynthia (Lydia Leonard) who join their mother for a strained family holiday in the Isles of Scilly. The two things to struck me most about this film were the incredibly natural performances and the long static shots. Both elements work together to create a drama as tense and immersive as a passive-aggressive Sunday afternoon in your own family home.

The dialogue is so natural throughout the film that I wondered how much was actually scripted. The characters interrupt each other, stammer over half sentences, pause in entirely the right places. Conversations happen in quiet tones or in other rooms because they’re not being performed for us the audience, we’re just listening in. The long, meticulously framed static camera shots add to this act of passive observing rather than being led by the hand. We’re not being shown deliberate and specific things, we’re just there in the room. With shots reaching up to nearly three minutes in length (there could have been longer, I stopped keeping track after a while), we’re forced to look around the scene and take in small details. Their expressions, body language, the things around them now gain our attention because we have the time to absorb it.

The film may try the patience of someone used to a faster-paced dynamic and it did try mine at times. Especially as it’s fairly light on plot. You have to be in the right mood to watch people decide which table to sit at for two-and-a-half minutes. But that’s where the glorious tension lies. The unspoken frustrations leaking out through social niceties until someone has to leave the table and stare at the sky until they calm down, never having expressed what they actually thought.

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The lack of background music supports the feeling of watching a family politely seethe. There’s no musical cue to tell us how to interpret a scene and nothing to spare us from the awkward silences. This is where Joanna Hogg captures so neatly what it feels like to have to maintain social norms and niceties when underneath you’re seething. Women, in particular, are socialized to be acutely aware of decorum and social ritual. We must conduct ourselves in just the right way s as to let others know what we think without expressly saying it lest we are punished for being aggressive.

So instead of just saying her food isn’t right and sending it straight back Cynthia just over-labors the point. She knows she can’t just be blunt because she has a level of formality to maintain as an upper-middle-class woman. Don’t cause trouble. There is a point in this scene where she crosses the line between innocent dislike of the food and perceived aggression, even though her language is perfectly reasonable throughout. I think it comes at the point where she says the food would be dangerous to eat. She has now crossed from being unhappy to being accusatory despite not being able to actually accuse anyone of anything.

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As the dinner table is the place where ritual and formality is most evident in many households this is the place where the family conducts a lot of their half-muttered disquiet. The tension is suddenly and shockingly shattered with a few screaming arguments, like a storm clearing the air. Even here it’s not a dramatic performance for the camera, we just overhear muffled swearing off-screen. We can all recall listening to other people’s arguments, cringing into the darkness and being bound by convention to pretend we can’t hear.

I wouldn’t say I was particularly moved by this film and I can see why some would find it drawn out and lacking plot. However, I did appreciate the elements which went into creating a strained family on the brink of change. And that the unsaid was thinly veiled by polite social norms often imposed on women. “Archipelago” isn’t trying to be exciting, it’s a wonderful example of subtle, beautiful, cringingly realistic filmmaking that will resonate with anyone who’s had to bite their tongue.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 Stars

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