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A classy affair

This tense dissection of a holiday fling unpicks bourgeois codes of etiquette

<strong>Unrelated (

Sun hats off to the distributor New Wave Films for releasing Unrelated, Joanna Hogg's skilfully controlled first feature, after the summer break rather than before: it's the sort of picture that could really spoil your holiday. This tale of bourgeois British sun-seekers and their baggage is more troubling than anything that happened (or rather, didn't happen) at Heathrow Terminal Five this year. We're talking about emotional baggage, baggage into which no airport X-ray can peer, and that no bomb squad can neutralise. Family, class, mortality, ambition, desire: most of the biggies are present and correct. You can only be thankful that politics and religion aren't on the list, because Unrelated has tension to spare as it is.

The film begins with the shy fortysomething Anna (Kathryn Worth) plodding through the Italian countryside at night, dragging her suitcase behind her. She has come to Tuscany at the invitation of her old school friend Verena (Mary Roscoe), who has rented a tasteful, echoey house for assorted family and chums. Anna arrives alone and apologetic. Yes, it's a frightful shame that her husband had some work come up at the last minute, as he so dearly wanted to come along, but what can you do? With that, the first crack appears in this perfect holiday, gradually widening to form a gorge into which most of the characters will stumble at one point or another.

Feeling uneasy around the slightly fuddy-duddy Verena, Anna gravitates away from the "olds" and toward the "youngs". Verena gripes about being snubbed, but Anna is truly liberated. A midnight skinny-dipping session ends with her climbing from the pool, triumphantly unembarrassed, while her teenage companions gawp like disbelieving witnesses at a UFO landing.

One of them is Oakley (Tom Hiddleston), a curly-locked Fauntleroy with icicle eyes, to whom Anna has taken a shine. Their initial intimacy is based entirely on looks that last a fraction too long. Kathryn Worth, who should check her family tree for any connection to Jane Birkin, gives an achingly vulnerable performance (incredibly, this is her debut, like Hogg). Her repertoire of wincing smiles conveys the neediness that leads Anna to pin her hopes foolishly on this kid, whose distribution of affection is cruelly cavalier in a way that only the young and good-looking truly can be.

Throughout this, the audience's experience is similar to that of the crowd at a slasher film: just as we find ourselves willing the teenage girl not to venture into the woods on her own in a Friday the 13th picture, so we watch Unrelated in a state of fraught anticipation. Oh, don't keep touching one another, we think. Don't bring that subject up. Don't ask him in for coffee.

Our agony is only intensified by Hogg's strikingly restrained style - no score, detached wide-shots that keep the action at arm's length, and a camera that moves only if this absolutely cannot be avoided. Several shots that observe from afar the intersecting relationships are so anthropological in flavour that you expect to hear David Attenborough commenting on the mating rituals of the bourgeoisie, or their eye-catching plumage. There's a Jamesian interest, too, in the complex codes of etiquette and behaviour on which a person's reputation and happiness can depend. Breaching those codes, partly by neglecting her own peer group, but also by being the one member of the group with no substantial family ties, leads to Anna's undoing.

However, it would be wrong to paint the film as a gloomfest. There is a strain of wry humour in the portrait of the wealthy at play that recalls the social comedies of Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco). And although the elegantly composed tableaux are worthy of Joseph Losey or Peter Greenaway, Hogg is not above slipping in some dotty jokes. Take the T-shirt slogans worn by Verena's son, which seem to reflect on the film itself. "You're Just Hearing Voices" surely refers to one of the picture's most uncomfortable scenes, in which a raging argument is staged off-screen while the other characters have no choice but to listen in, heads buried in hands. Meanwhile, "Boldly Going Nowhere" is a fitting motto for this clan, which behaves like aristocracy 107th or thereabouts in line to the throne.

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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 and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Labour: How to save the party