LFF Film Review: Archipelago
noun ( pl. -gos or -goes)
a group of islands.
a sea or stretch of water containing many islands.
This was about all the information I could find about Joanna Hogg’s follow up to her critically acclaimed film Unrelated. There was no real synopsis on the imdb, nor were there any solid details in the London Film Festival handbook. The only bit of info that continued to crop up in my search was that Joanna Hogg was a “filmmaker”. Needless to say, in the Q&A that followed the film, Hogg referred to herself in this way also, as did the curator of the Q&A. If you haven’t yet seen the film, this could give you some idea of what the film would be like in both style and content, and probably help you sum it up in one word before you even read a sentence of this review.
“Poncey” might be one word that some people might use. Not myself mind you. But you know…some people. You see, in the film industry there are people who make films, and then there are “filmmakers”. I would say I mainly work with people who make films. On the sets of Harry Potter or X-Men, not once have I heard people talk about mis-en-scene or the aesthetic nature of what we were putting on screen. Whereas a “filmmaker” tends to use the medium of film as a window into the world, a piece of art even. A moving portrait that is open to critique and interpretation. You don’t go to a filmmakers screening looking to be entertained. You go to be challenged and stimulated, visually or otherwise. Film as a form of art adheres to a different set of values to mainstream cinema and allows some kind of artistic expression for its director. So, what about Archipelago? Does it work as film? An art film or otherwise?
The film is set on the Isle of Scilly where a family has gone on one last holiday before the son leaves for Africa for 11 months on humanitarian work. We follow them for 10 days as they see the sights of Scilly and take part in all the activities the island has to offer. There is no real plot as such with no typical beginning, middle or an end. Nor are there any Hollywood-esque character arcs. What Archipelago presents us with is a piece of everyday life in which a seemingly tight family is thrust into a forced situation, and we as the audience watch see how they cope with interacting with one another and the outsiders that surround them. Primarily their chef, Rose, and the family’s art teacher played by “non-actor” Christopher Baker.
By watching the interactions of the family, we realise that they are far from the typical, happy, middle class family they appeared to be at the outset, and are just a normal family with normal problems. Brother and sister fight like most brothers and sisters do whereas the mother tries to stay calm and not cause too much of a fuss. But the mother’s docile nature only infuriates her daughter. All is not well in this household.
While most mainstream films keep you engaged with an interesting storyline, Archipelago presents itself very much like a painting and each scene is framed like a portrait. According to the Q&A that followed the film, this is typical of Hogg’s style. But this style has more importance and meaning behind it in Archipelago, as one of the central themes of the film is Art and the discussion of art. The family are having painting lessons and the very first shot of the film is of a cliffs edge filled with vibrant, bright colours that exude life and energy. Cut to the real cliff and it is dark, dull and void of any such life which reminds me of the family. Much like that painting, on first viewing they look like a well oiled, vibrant happy family. On closer inspection, much like the painting, the family are not exactly what they look like and are open to interpretation. The truth they want us to see is much different from what is actually true.
The acting in Archipelago is superb and as Vicky pointed out, at times you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching a documentary. The way each character relates to one another is very poignant too. Food is at the centre of the film, and by default so is the chef played by another “non-actor”, Amy Lloyd. The son almost sees her like she is being forced into slavery and questions why she can’t sit at the dining table with the rest of the family, whereas the daughter sees food workers as being somewhat beneath her and simply doing her job. This may well be the case, but she comes across as snobbish in doing so and conversely, for all the sons best efforts he only manages to alienate Rose further.
These examples highlight the family in general. They don’t see eye to eye on anything. The brother argues with the sister, mother argues with the father, the daughter argues with the mother and the son argues with himself. And herein lies the thinking behind the title. The family is indeed a group of archipelagos. The family name is the body of water and each member is a separate island, aimlessly floating about each other making no real connection. Like a group of islands, they were once a solid unit, but each part is now a separate unit floating by itself.
With this is mind, Archipelago truly is an “Art film” on several levels. We have seen how Art films can try to compare to pieces of art, but Archipelago goes one step further and presents itself as a moving portrait. Each shot appears as if it is meticulously constructed. The film literally is framed like a painting. And not just any Harry Potter style moving portrait style painting, it is a real life moving piece of art.
But is it any good? That’s the thing with art I guess, there is no right or wrong answer, only opinions and discourse. While big-budget blockbusters are ultimately decided by sales figures and DVD sales, art films very rarely expect to make all of their budget back so it is in analysis and word of mouth that ultimately decides if it’s a good film or not. And seeing as I have just written well over a 1000 words discussing Archipelago, I guess it had succeeded in one sense. Would I recommend it? Well that is another issue completely, one I might well leave up to you to decide but I will say this. While it might not be to the majority of peoples tastes, it’s certainly better than a lot of the tripe Hollywood is churning out at the moment, and without naming names (*COUGH* SAW 3D *COUGH*) so if you are stuck for something to watch and want some thought provoking stuff, you wouldn’t go wrong in checking out Archipelago.
Review by Dean Crawford.