Some of you will know that the photo on this blog is from the Isles of Scilly – a view of the Western Rocks from the island of St Agnes, in fact. Since the 1980s I have had a timeshare cottage on the island of Tresco, and go there every other year. So when we heard about this film, Archipelago set as a timeshare holiday on Tresco, in the neighbouring, though larger, property to ours, we had to see it. It’s a beautiful but intensely uncomfortable film.
The film is directed by Joanna Hogg, and is an acute observation of a family holiday with two 20-something siblings, Edward and Cynthia, and their mother Patricia, in November, in the shooting season. It’s the holiday from hell as Cynthia poisons it with overwhelming negativity, which is not explained. It’s an understated sort of film. The camera is static; there’s no music, the dialogue is awkward and feels unscripted, there are many awkward silences, the light seems to be as is. We watch the holiday fall apart in a sort of slow motion.
The film is utterly faithful to the place. Ms Hogg takes no liberties with the location in the way that film-makers love to. The sounds, birds, the helicopter, tractors and even the foghorn, all evoke Tresco. The holiday proceeds exactly as a week’s timeshare does, right up to the housekeeping team turning up on the last day. The only jarring note is that the birdsong seems a bit vigorous for November, and we get screaming swifts at one point, long after they would have migrated (and swifts don’t come to Scilly much, anyway).
The programme notes at the BFI refer to the English upper middle class’s inability to communicate. That’s a bit hasty; the English upper middle class is everybody’s favourite object of derision. There isn’t much communicating going on, but we don’t know why. Maybe everything has already been said. We don’t know why Cynthia is so bitter and fragile, but there must be a reason. Edward is just as isolated, as nobody will support him, especially with his imminent venture as a volunteer in Africa. He’s nice to Cynthia’s nasty, but equally uncomprehending of others – as poor Rose the cook finds to her cost. Patricia is the easiest of the family to like, but is unable to bring her family together, with her absent husband, who was supposed to join them, adding to her frustration.
Film makers love to play God. Ms Hogg’s restraint is remarkable. A beautifully crafted film is the result.