Invisible forces threaten to pull apart a sub-nuclear family of three during a vacation in the admirable but faintly flawed Brit chamber piece “Archipelago.” A sophomore outing for writer-helmer Joanna Hogg, pic tastes like a boiled-down version of her impressive debut, “Unrelated,” using many of the same key ingredients but minus some of the major boosts — a bigger cast, and greater story complexity — that gave the first film such dramatic heft. Nevertheless, with critical support, “Archipelago” should stay afloat as a niche release with appeal to upscale auds, and drift through the fest circuit.
On Tresco, one of the Isles of Scilly off Blighty’s Cornish coast, three members of the upper-middle-class Leighton family gather for a two-week stay in a beautiful rustic cottage. Mousy mother Patricia (Kate Fahy) wants everything to be perfect for a warm send-off to her twentysomething son, Edward (Tom Hiddleston, who co-starred in “Unrelated”). Edward is about to spend a year in Africa working for an NGO, an altruistic career timeout his judgmental sister, Cynthia (Lydia Leonard), snidely describes as a “gap year.”
Patricia has hired a local painting teacher, Christopher (Christopher Baker), to give her and Cynthia art lessons while they’re on the island, as well as a cook, Rose (Amy Lloyd), to prepare all the meals. Notably absent from the party is family patriarch William (never seen), with whom Patricia has increasingly angry conversations on the phone as the days pass and he fails to arrive as planned.
As in “Unrelated,” the intensely naturalistic, semi-improvised dialogue gradually hints at deeper tensions among the characters, although everything seems to be all bourgeois sweetness and light on the surface, at least at first. Static camera setups and an almost complete lack of closeups create a distancing effect as the characters move in and out of rooms, going about their business, frequently heard but not seen onscreen. Indeed, as she did in her first film, Hogg has the most violent confrontation — between Patricia and Cynthia, over what seems the slightest of provocations — unfold entirely offscreen, but overheard with acute discomfort by other characters.
With its painterly compositions (intentionally reminiscent, per helmer, of Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi), interplay between repression and violent emotion, and rural island setting, pic feels more Scandinavian than British, far more akin to Ingmar Bergman than Merchant-Ivory. But contempo auds may balk at Hogg’s insistently elliptical script, which provides no explanation as to why, for instance, William never comes, or why Cynthia is such a seething ball of rage and self-righteousness.
Still, this is a beautifully distilled and literally still work that lingers in the mind long after its conclusion. Also, it’s refreshing to see a film set in such an unabashedly wealthy milieu that doesn’t feel the need to sneer, excoriate or satirize the rich, even while it takes on intra-class tension as a theme via the awkward relationship between Edward and Rose.
It’s a testament to Hogg’s helming skill and how well cast the film is that there’s no palpable difference in quality between the perfs by professional thesps (Fahy, Hiddleston and Leonard, all excellent) and those by non-pros Baker and Lloyd, both essentially playing themselves (a painting teacher and a cook, respectively, although Lloyd did once attend drama school).
Craft contributions are solid but unflashy given the film’s low budget. Lensing looked murky in some nighttime and low-lit scenes at the screening caught, but this may have been due to the sightlines and digital projection, which seem to reduce clarity for those sitting near the sides of the theater.