Writer-director Joanna Hogg’s second feature will try the patience of its audience. And it shows how British film-making has lost its wayby Nick Cohen / February 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
Edward (Tom Hiddleston) in Archipelago: watching this film is like “staring at a cryptic crossword”
Archipelago On general release from 4th March
Viewers try to understand the point of a plot that barely moves. The screenplay is snatches of inconsequential dialogue filled with “ums” and “errs,” followed by long periods of silence. Do they signify approaching menace or approaching banality? Do they mean something or nothing? A painter appears on the screen, and for no particular reason assesses the relative merits of realism and abstraction. Why? Did writer-director Joanna Hogg think up his role so that she could reflect on the nature of her film-making or is she trying to offer the audience a hint of how she will resolve what tension there is?
Like so many art-house films, watching Archipelago is like staring at a cryptic crossword. The audience assumes that the director has filmed scenes for a reason, and the slowness of the action and dullness of the dialogue will lead to a finale when all that had appeared random will fit. Yet at the back of their minds lingers the doubt that the compiler has made a mistake, and there is no solution to the puzzle.
Patricia has invited her grown-up children, the tormented Edward and the brittle, argumentative Cynthia, to a holiday home in the Isles of Scilly. All three are desperate and insecure. The mother yearns for the father to join them and make the family holiday complete. Every line on Edward’s face quivers with doubt as he wonders whether to leave his girlfriend to work in Africa. Cynthia is spiky and spiteful, and locked in her own private hell. They paint with a local artist and walk on the beach. Everyone waits for the father. He phones to say he will not join them. Patricia spews out her hatred of her husband. But she is English and calms down, and the family put on a brave face and carry on living with unhappiness.
“Art-house” is the best term for the kind of film Joanna Hogg has made. “High art” does not work because Archipelago is all surfaces. Hogg has no story to tell; she offers no moral or personal resolution and no insight into the human condition.
Which is not to say that she is an artistic failure. She is a good director, who may become a great one. She shoots landscapes with enormous care and confidence and minutely observes the embarrassments and miseries of the English upper-middle class. Although some may complain they can get that at home, those who are prepared to stick with her will see a handful of exquisitely prepared and executed scenes.
Although Hogg worked with Derek Jarman when she was young, she earned her living for much of her career making music videos and directing episodes of Casualty and EastEnders. In interviews she brushes off her past. Perhaps she sees her popular film-making as hack work to pay the bills. Certainly, viewers of Archipelago will notice that she brings nothing that she learned from communicating to a mass audience to her conversation with the niche one.
Critics hail Hogg as an authentic British “auteur,” and in the sense that she directs her own scripts she is the cinematic equivalent of a novelist presenting a unique individual vision. But if you want to understand why Britain, which once prided itself on its ability to produce intelligent dramas, has been so decisively surpassed by America, then Hogg’s decision to place an insurmountable wall between the elite and the popular is revealing.
The American, and increasingly European, television dramas that appeal on many levels to large and intelligent audiences cannot be created within Britain’s aesthetic apartheid. We do not have America’s teams of writers, producers and directors, who understand the lesson of the golden age of Hollywood that film can be at its best when it is a collective endeavour.
The British do not collaborate or mix the high and the low. There is an elite culture and then there is a mass culture, and the space in between, where most artists for most of history have wanted to live, is increasingly narrow.