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Archipelago (DVD Details)

Unique ID Code: 0000142195
Added by: David Beckett
Added on: 23/5/2011 11:00
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    8 / 10

    It's been a while since I saw a decent independent British film so, when I heard about Archipelago, a moderately budgeted British film set on the Isles of Scilly which had a five star review in the Guardian and some glowing praise from the Telegraph, I decided this was not an opportunity to miss. I know by bitter experience never to trust press releases, posters and other publicity material as they can occasionally pick the only good review about the film, quote it in big letters and suck you in to see a film which really isn't deserving of such praise and the 95% of other reviewers were perfectly correct in slamming the film. Fortunately, there had been a long enough gap between requesting the disc and putting it in my DVD player so I had completely forgotten what it was about and what various people thought of it so, with an open mind, I pressed play and sat back to watch Joanna Hogg's watch and evaluate second film.

    When she learns her son, Edward, is going away to work in Africa, Patricia decides to invite him and his sister, Cynthia, to her holiday home on Tresco for a family get-together. As this is a 'family only' gathering, Edward is persuaded to leave his girlfriend at home and fly to Tresco alone. When he arrives, he is more than a little surprised to find his mother has hired a chef to prepare the meals and clean up in the kitchen and her painting teacher, Christopher, is also there - so much for 'family only'. It also seems as if Cynthia has had more than a little persuasion to attend and has left something extremely dark and troubling on the mainland so is extremely emotionally fragile.

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    As I hadn't seen Unrelated, Joanna Hogg's debut film, I really didn't know what to expect from such a film but, if a comparison has to be made, I would associate her style of filmmaking with Yasujiro Ozu's. Like the great Japanese filmmaker, Hogg seems content to let events play out naturally without any scored music to underscore or emphasise emotion and frequently leaves the camera 'locked off' so you are almost trapped with the family. As the film progresses and events unfold, it is clear the title does not just refer to the Isles of Scilly, but to the family members who seem unable to converse with one another, something which creates frequent awkward silences, so Patricia seeks solace in her painting teacher and Edward would rather talk to Rose, the chef, than anyone else.

    Archipelago is a film which strips emotions right down and makes each character as emotionally vulnerable and damaged as years in therapy would take so each word and each sentence exchanged between them carries much more impact than if there were more characters who were not treated in the same way. You occasionally have this sort of character development and dissection of a family in a TV show with over 20 episodes, such as Allan Ball's superb Six Feet Under, but I have rarely seen a film treated its characters in such a way. You always get the sense there is something that someone isn't saying; why Patricia doesn't want the painting up in the living room, what has happened to Cynthia and whether Edward is 100% committed to his trip to Africa.

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    Choosing to employ both professional actors and those who have never acted in front of the camera before, Joanna Hogg brings a profound realism to proceedings as the artist is played by her real life painting teacher, Christopher Baker and Rose is played by real-life chef Amy Lloyd who had some experience of acting as she went to drama class when she was younger. There is a scene near the end when the artist gives Edward some advice which appears to be utterly heartfelt and, as Joanna Hogg says in the commentary, all of this is straight from Baker's heart and wasn't scripted that way. As Edward, Tom Hiddleston (who will be familiar to those who have seen Thor or the Wallander TV series) gives a remarkable performance as Edward who tries to be emotionally closed off so as not to give his mother any 'ammunition'.

    Lydia Leonard gives a similarly superb performance as Cynthia, a woman of strong opinions and views who isn't afraid to challenge people. When the family (and associates) go out for a meal, Cynthia is unhappy at the way her meat has been cooked and, though the mother is perfectly happy with hers, insists on complaining to a waitress and the chef. However, this is a veneer for someone who is extremely vulnerable and with raw emotions and the scene in which she (inevitably) breaks down is heart-wrenching in its authenticity.

    Archipelago is a film in which very little happens - there are no major emotional outbursts, life or death situations or major action sequences but it has that remarkable je ne sais quoi which makes such family dramas compelling viewing and can leave you emotionally exhausted at the end.

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    The Disc

    Extra Features

    The solitary bonus feature on the disc is the trailer but there is also an audio commentary by Joanna Hogg, who is joined by Jason Wood, a film critic and programmer and, as she says that the very beginning, they are both DVD commentary virgins. If this was a solo effort by Hogg, it would probably have been extremely gappy, unfocused and hard to sit through but thankfully Wood acts as a moderator, prompting her for information on certain scenes, locations, actors and she responds by and showing his questions fully and seems quite happy talking about the film even though she hates watching her films after they are finished.

    The Picture

    This was shot digitally and there are some scenes where the contrast levels aren't perhaps as deep as they might have been if this was shot on 35mm film. However, the picture quality is generally very good as the camera picks out slight drizzle and does a terrific job with the scenery in and around Tresco, which is why the subplot involving Patricia's painting makes so much sense.

    Joanna Hogg's directing style is very minimalistic where she is friends and composes a scene, puts the camera in the correct place and lets the actors do their job so it is sometimes like watching a stage play and, in a film like this, that is no bad thing.

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    The Sound

    You have the choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 surround or 2.0 stereo and there is very little to choose between them. There are only several occasions when the front and rear surrounds come into play and these aren't integral to the narrative and I found the dialogue to be slightly clearer on the stereo track.

    One of the more interesting features is the complete lack of music, with the atmospherics and bird song providing the only 'musical accompaniment'. This works in the film's favour as there is no music to distract you and it allows the characters and the direction to increase the emotion without resorting to unnecessary music which could be heavy-handed.

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    Final Thoughts

    Archipelago is an exceptionally well written and directed film with superb performances by the entire cast and is an extremely rewarding watch. It is the sort of film where you get out of it as much as you put in so, if you emotionally invest yourself in the characters, it will help a great deal when it comes to the more emotional scenes and exchanges between different people.

    The disc may not be packed to the rafters with extra features but the commentary is an interesting and informative listen and probably provides more information than a making of/behind-the-scenes featurette would. If slow burning dramas appeal to you and you enjoy working hard as a viewer rather than having everything spoonfed to you, there is a great deal to like here and a blind buy isn't out of the question.

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