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Archipelago (15)

An impressive understated portrait of a conflicted family holiday.

Jean Renoir famously remarked that "a director makes only one movie in his life. Then he breaks it into pieces and makes it again." The British writer-director Joanna Hogg appears to have skipped the "breaks it into pieces" part. She made a splash three years ago with her first film, Unrelated, the discreetly fraught study of an upper-middle class family slowly going to pieces on holiday in Italy. Now comes Archipelago, the discreetly fraught study of an upper-middle class family slowly going to pieces on holiday in the Scilly Isles. The landscape is still magnificent but the weather leaves something to be desired. A cold front of seething resentment is moving in steadily from the north.

Archipelago returns to some of the same emotional territory as its predecessor, combing for clues that may have been missed first time around. The films share a rigidly controlled visual style, as well as a rigidly controlled actor, Tom Hiddleston, who has the curly-haired feyness and steep Mekon forehead of the young Art Garfunkel. He plays Edward, who is about to embark on a belated gap year teaching sex education in Africa; his mention of Aids during a picnic threatens to puncture the family's bubble of privilege. His older sister Cynthia (Lydia Leonard), who communicates exclusively in sniping and indignation, wastes no time telling him what she think of his plans when Edward joins her and their mother, Patricia (Kate Fahy), in the family's holiday home. "I'm really happy for you," she says. "I'm happy you feel you can be so cavalier with your future." Well, that's the pleasantries out of the way . . .

There seems a strong likelihood that the family will kvetch and begrudge one another to death. Patricia is on tenterhooks over the continually deferred arrival of her husband (Unrelated also featured, or didn't feature, an absent male on the other end of a phone line), while Cynthia is the most fascinating black hole of neurosis since Judy Davis in Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives. Anyone who sends back
a dish in a restaurant from this day forward will be competing with the memory of Cynthia returning what she believes is undercooked guinea fowl, all the while repeating the phrase, "This is actually quite dangerous" over and over again like a hex.

Outsiders only inflame the internal tensions. A local artist (Christopher Baker) has been hired to help Patricia with her painting. His canvas, one of many small frames within the larger film frame, provides the opening shot, and it is his gnomic utterances, on the value of allowing creative chaos to flourish, that comment rather too knowingly on the movie we are watching. "I'm trying to approach it from a more interesting tangent," he says of landscape painting. "Understatement." Do I hear the sound of a director writing her own reviews?

More problematic to the family is the young cook, Rose (Amy Lloyd), to whom we know Edward has taken a shine well before he leans his bicycle delicately against hers. Groping his way through small-talk with her ("Have you come far?"), he sounds like Prince Charles glad-handing commoners. Cynthia and Patricia are no more graceful in working out how to treat the help. They're gripped by social paralysis whenever they have to interact with people outside their bloodline or social class. Patricia argues against welcoming Rose at the dinner table because she's an employee; Edward's girlfriend wasn't invited on holiday because Cynthia didn't consider her a legitimate family member. Pointlessly they go on defending the ramparts of their joyless lives.

The static camera favours painterly exteriors dominated by blank or stormy skies and cramped set-ups within the house. It stays on in rooms, Woody Allen-style, once the characters have left to continue their argument elsewhere, bringing to these pregnant emotional spaces the mute revelation of a Rachel Whiteread sculpture. Hogg's antennae twitch at every cruelty. Rose likens the period after her father's death to a coma, a word she also uses when describing the drowsy lobsters boiling on the stove. Of course, everyone here is in their own coma. Thankfully, Hogg doesn't force the point. She doesn't force anything. That's one quality that helps us to overlook the slight air of encore about Archipelago.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 07 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The great property swindle