REVIEW: Archipelago [2011]

Rating: 9 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 114 minutes
    Release Date: March 4th, 2011 (UK)
    Studio: Artificial Eye / Kino Lorber
    Director(s): Joanna Hogg
    Writer(s): Joanna Hogg

I’ll wait and see what I’m told to do.

There’s no better name for what Joanna Hogg has created than Archipelago. Not only has she set her film upon a series of islands on which the central family vacations, but she’s also molded the members of that horde into those very same scattered mounds of land. This is to be their send-off for Edward (Tom Hiddleston) as he’s about to embark on an eleven-month stay in Africa as an aid worker: just him, his sister Cynthia (Lydia Leonard), their mom (Kate Fahy‘s Patricia), and father. We get the feeling these brief get-togethers supply those rare moments when they can all be under the same roof now that life and age has separated them onto their own paths forward. So they’re simultaneously the best and worst of times.

One of the many things Hogg’s previous effort Unrelated showcased from her cinematic repertoire was an ability to gradually escalate drama via multiple explosive moments packing a wallop of a punch without ever truly destroying those involved. The journey therefore doesn’t concern itself with plot as much as each character’s growth and understanding on a personal level within the course of their communal experience. These are cathartic exercises that let the emotional power (frustration, jealousy, and insecurity) of reaction provide the theatrics rather than the scenario itself. That which Hogg takes away actually dictates more of what we see than that which is present because it’s these characters’ internalized truths that rule them. An undercooked meal may spark a skirmish, but we know its origins lie elsewhere.

We therefore meet everyone at a moment of excitement and energy upon arrival—where their usual tendencies revel in a grace period that fashions them as endearing quirks instead of the incendiary character traits they prove once compounded over a period of days without reprieve. Patricia’s quiet embarrassment, Edward’s unfailing guilt, and Cynthia’s pragmatically compulsive need for control can only be laughed off for so long as patience frays. And for those outsiders caught helpless on the fringes (Amy Lloyd‘s Rose who has been hired as their cook for the two-weeks they’re here and Christopher Baker‘s Christopher as Patricia’s painting guru and wizened purveyor of life’s truths), the result can produce little besides awkward silence when those accustomed to the fallout are too defeated themselves to supply rescue.

It’s a three-headed monster wherein none can truly take focus considering each is in the same boat as far as vulnerability (or lack thereof) goes. Patricia shuts down when overwhelmed, Edward desperately searches for a distraction to take his mind off the anger stewing inside, and Cynthia lets it erupt before storming out of the room. And the discomfort felt by those caught within that familiar cycle of self-destruction is palpable to the point of finding myself unable to watch them. So Hogg ensures Rose and/or Christopher is there in the background as anchors, flatfooted and unable to repair the damage like us. By refusing to give one an upper hand and thus our empathy above the rest, we’re left watching with a knowing sense of their pain.

Archipelago is a very clear evolution from Unrelated and ultimately a more assured and potent depiction of the same type of resonant purgatorial shame. Hogg’s decision to spread the wealth from one character to three lends the whole a more generalized scope wherein we’re seeing behind the curtain of the family (unable to flee) rather than the stranger using them for escape. Now the silent voice of abandonment is the patriarch calling to see how things are going (not well) and the replacement figures are providing comfort in stability (Christopher for Patricia and Rose for Edward) as opposed to romantic distraction. That leaves Cynthia most fragile of all since her brother’s impending departure is what she combats without a surrogate to tell her everything will be okay.

The tension caused by their explosions risks breaking but never does. This is crucial because any laughter as a result of their suffering would ruin the unparalleled authenticity. That’s not to say the film is without comedy—these characters have a wonderful sense of humor when they aren’t being suffocated by their crippling self-doubt and internalized rage. Only that Hogg deftly handles the crescendo of unease to ensure we’re left speechless by each incident. Even when we inevitably can predict trouble on the horizon, it bubbles to the surface so naturally that we cannot prepare ourselves for the heavy silence that follows. And I’m not sure anyone shoots a static room with disembodied screaming permeating from off-screen better, especially knowing nobody can remark on what they just heard.

All we can do is suffer with them, share their heartache, and hope they can exit the other end with something of worth learned from the experience. The pent-up emotions shrugged off with a smile the next day is nothing if not immensely relatable, their flared tempers and breathless calm both created by a repressed nature some manifest into a desire to cause a scene while the others shrink away to pretend they aren’t even there. It’s a master class of acting with Fahy’s muted frustrations only overshadowed by Hiddleston’s overzealous projection and Leonard’s devastating isolation. Hogg let’s the mundane act as triggers (her constant inclusion of the absent father through external subtleties is brilliant) so they can imbue their characters with the messy uncertainty of life’s tribulations.

[1] Christopher Baker as Christopher, Kate Fahy as Patricia, Amy Lloyd as Rose, Lydia Leonard as Cynthia, and Tom Hiddleston as Edward in ARCHIPELAGO, a film by Joanna Hogg.
[2] Tom Hiddleston as Edward and Kate Fahy as Patricia in ARCHIPELAGO, a film by Joanna Hogg.
[3] Tom Hiddleston as Edward in ARCHIPELAGO, a film by Joanna Hogg.

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