31 March 2011

Joanna Hogg’s ‘Archipelago’

As I began to read Harry Eyres’s The Slow Lane article, Spotlight on a class apart, in the FT on 19 March, I almost wanted to give Archipelago a miss:
I went to see Joanna Hogg’s latest film, Archipelago, for family reasons – not just because she happens to be a cousin of mine but also because I imagined the film, about an upper-middle-class family having a fraught holiday in the Scilly Isles, might strike some familiar chords.
then later:
Among the birdsongs featured, Hogg has confirmed to me, are those of the stonechat, chiffchaff, whitethroat, curlew, songthrush and wren
After seeing Archipelago, I’m glad my initial suspicions of Eyres’ article being little more than a shameless plug for a relative were unfounded. Most of his article is a slightly tedious apologia for Hogg having made a film about the “upper-middle-classes”. Eyres, (who at 53 may now look a tad older than in his FT photo), judging from remarks made in previous The Slow Lane columns, comes from the upper classes, even though he seems to want to demote himself to the upper-middle. Whether he and Hogg are related to the well-known Eyres family who came with William the Conqueror, I have no idea. And, as one of humble origins, I don't have to agonise about the class stuff. The question is: is it a good film?
Eyres thought it was a small masterpiece, but I’m not so sure. Certainly anyone who admires films like Woody Allen’s September or the films of Eric Rohmer will enjoy it. Conversely, if you’d rather watch paint dry, then you won’t. By the way, Eric Rohmer’s films (and I’ve seen nearly all of them) are usually about the petite bourgeoisie, not haute as Eyres says, and anyway class is different in France. The problems for me were in the photography and in the plot, not the people.

Nearly all the filming was static and long shot, with the action (actors, helicopters etc) moving in and out of frame. Rohmer fans will be familiar with this, but over-used it does get a bit tiring. For me, some tracking and panning are integral to cinematography, as is the use of closer shots of actors as a means for identifying with the characters, something which Hogg seemed to adopt only towards the end.

The plot concerns three members (mother about 50; son, daughter in their 20s) of an archipelagic family being unhappy in their own way on holiday in Tresco (one of the Isles of Scilly, west of SW England). A young woman is employed as cook. An artist coaches mother and daughter and philosophises with the son. However, the holiday is supposed to last a fortnight (in late October judging by the weather and a poppy being worn), but the action and character development doesn’t match – it seems more like a long weekend. The son’s girlfriend is barred from coming; the father never appears; the daughter, attractive, difficult, seems to have no significant other; the son relationship’s with the cook doesn’t evolve (surely not because her class!). These non-happenings detract from the credibility of a realist film. After nearly two hours in the cinema, little seems to have been resolved – just like real life, then - and the knives are packed away to be used another time.

It was good, but not in my mind a “small masterpiece”. However, I have ordered the DVD of Joanna Hogg’s first feature, Unrelated, and I will watch out for her next (Archipelago is already on DVD, by the way). Eric Rohmer didn’t make the third of his Contes moraux, Ma nuit chez Maud, until he was 49, and finished his Contes des quatre saisons at 78. Hogg is a mere 51, so plenty of time for a masterpiece!

ADDENDUM 2 May 2011
I have now watched Hogg’s first film, Unrelated, set in Tuscany, and again there is an “upper middle class” family on the sort of holiday where people are paid to cook for them. They are joined by Anna, a childless forty-something escaping temporarily from a relationship problem, played well by Kathryn Worth. She tries to hang out with the adolescent children (Tom Hiddleston plays the son in this one, too) but fails and finishes up gaining solace from her own generation. The chronology and plot work better than in Archipelago and there’s a similar bags-in-the-hall scene at the end. On the DVD extra Hogg talks about her work – to me she still seems more the photographer that she used to be than a cinematographer. She explains that her use of still shots is a consequence of digital filming technology. Elsewhere, I have read that she intends to direct a third film, to make up a trilogy. She says she will be “returning to the theme of childlessness that I raised in Unrelated, combined with the continued exploration into what family means. I see something that is highly coloured, crowded with people and more physical with a redemptive, optimistic outlook.” Sounds like a holiday in India next.

Maybe I’ve got an eye for the wrong sort of detail, but in the Night Swimming scene in Unrelated, there seems to be a continuity error – or was it part of Anna’s come-on?

ADDENDUM 26 July 2012

To fill newspaper columns at this time of the year, a favourite standby is to round up some suitable names and ask them where they are going on holiday or what books they are going to read. So on 21/22 July in FT Life and Arts various luminaries were asked about their ideal summer breaks, including Joanna Hogg, Film-maker and screenwriter:

How are you spending the summer?
I’m preparing a new film but in August I’m escaping to Göcek in Turkey to relax with 15 friends on a gulet, a traditional sailing boat. …
Where would you like to go next?
Japan in the autumn with [artist husband] Nick but, because of filming, this trip will have to wait until 2013. …

Her IMDb entry sheds no more light currently.  Tom Hiddleston looks a bit busy these days.

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