The timing of watching Archipelago was pretty appropriate given that the holiday season is only a few weeks away and with the holidays comes time with your family. Archipelago is all about family dynamics and politics. The film is set at a vacation home on the Isles of Scilly. Patricia, the mother played by Kate Fahy, and her children Edward (Tom Hiddleston) and Cynthia (Lydie Leonard) are taking a two week family vacation together before Edward leaves to volunteer in Africa for a year. Their father is supposed to join them but he is delayed. There are two other people in the film that interact with the family regularly. There is a cook/house maid named Rose who stays with the family in the house and Christopher an artists, art teacher, and family friend. The family is together for two weeks and the small dramas play out every day with Christopher and Rose as witnesses.
I would describe Archipelago’s director Joanna Hogg’s style of film making as: lingering. What I mean by that is she often places the camera in one spot and lets it capture the action in front of it, she lets the camera linger for a while after scenes finish to capture the real awkwardness of life. You see people sitting together not speaking, or someone just smoking alone, or the wind blowing through trees. Part of me likes this technique and part of me hates it. This lingering style makes everything very real. Life doesn’t occur in perfectly edited scenes, so it makes sense the film shouldn’t always either. This technique also slows the pace of the film way down. There are scenes when literally nothing happens but a curtain flapping out a window. The conclusion I came to is I liked it when it helped add context to a scene, it irritated me when it felt too artsy.
The acting in the film was one of its greatest strengths. We all know Hiddleston is a talent. He plays Edward as an affable guy who is really struggling with his decision to leave everything behind and spend a year in Africa teaching AIDS awareness. He is also the most uncomfortable having Rose wait on him. There is a running romantic tension between him and Rose. They both clearly feel it but neither acknowledges it out loud. Cynthia is a bitch from start to finish, there really is no other way to put it. What I liked about Leonard’s performance is it’s consistency and believability. She never goes too far but manages to have her self interest bleed into every word and gesture she makes. Patricia is the typical British mother, very “stiff upper lip”. Her veneer does start to crack though as her children start to push her buttons and her husband keeps giving excuses for not being there. The phone calls between them serve to show the audience exactly what is happening below the surface with Patricia. Amy Lloyd as Rose, was probably my favorite character. She tries her best to stay out of the family scuffles but she also sees everything that goes on. She is a constant presence in the back ground. She is also struggling because she just lost her father in a car crash and is trying to keep moving forward and not fall apart. Christopher Baker plays an artist in the film and is an artist in real life. He was probably my least favorite character. He was the most pretentious and there is something insufferable to me about hearing artists talk about art. He does a nice job though playing the voice of reason throughout the film.
Hogg isn’t afraid to capture the small moments. We see several small scenes with Rose that don’t really move the plot forward but are real and charming. She picks up a couple lobsters from a local fisherman and has a nice conversation with him about the lobsters. He teaches her how to tell the males from the females. We then we see her in the kitchen clearly struggling with the fact that she has to kill them. We also see her climbing on some rocks during a family picnic. It doesn’t drive the plot forward, it is just a private and real moment.
The sound mixing on the film is very distracting. It is was often very difficult to hear what people were saying, but the sound of the ocean or wind would be very loud. I think most of this was done on purpose but it made it hard to keep track of the dialogue sometimes. My usual solution to films that have poor sound mixing is just to watch it with the subtitles on but the DVD doesn’t have subtitles so that was bust. I ended up playing the “adjust the volume every scene” game.
I ended up enjoying the film even though it made me roll my eyes a number of times. Archipelago is a film that requires patience. You have to be able to enjoy Hogg’s lingering film style and the tortuous truth of this close-up look at family.