British director Joanna Hogg's first film, Unrelated, was an intimate and sympathetic, but not uncritical, portrait of upper-middle-class folk and their children on a Tuscan holiday, told from the perspective of one of their friends, a woman, who hangs out with teenagers to escape from troubles in the adult world. For her second film, another low-budget work with an air of improvisation to it, Hogg goes back on holiday, but she leaves the sun in Italy and her alter ego at home to portray a fractured family from the inside during a period of discord and dreadful weather. In Archipelago, the pretty landscapes of Siena give way to the brooding, changing landscapes of a tiny island in the Isles of Scilly.
Patricia (Kate Fahy) and her two children, young adults Edward (Tom Hiddleston) and Cynthia (Lydia Leonard), arrive for a break at a holiday cottage. As rain and wind lash against the windows, Patricia grows exasperated at the absence of her husband, who remains an unheard voice on the phone. Good-natured Edward struggles to hide his angst at where his life is heading and assumes a fatherly role while becoming weirdly familiar with Rose (Amy Lloyd), the family's hired cook. Cynthia, meanwhile, looms like a dark cloud and snaps and lashes out for no clear reason.
All in all, it's a very English affair, which is amusing considering that Hogg's influences are so obviously more broadly European. Characters struggle to say what they mean, or anything at all, and there's no therapist on hand to lead matters to a neat, inspiring conclusion.Hogg's second film suggests a director emboldened by her first. She takes risks. Scenes play out in a single take, the camera locked in position, resisting close-ups and giving Archipelago an appropriate sense of foreboding and austerity. It also creates space for silences to linger and awkwardness to ferment. There are enough elephants in the room to fill a zoo. If there's an element of Archipelago that doesn't fully work, it's the character of a painter (Christopher Baker) who gives the family lessons in his craft. He may remind us of the father's absence (and absence of warmth, if comments by his kids are accurate) and his musings on art and abstraction may nod to Hogg's perception of her own work, yet there's a serene naivety to his delivery that grates and feels condescending when it shouldn't.
But that's a quibble. Archipelago is a daring new riff on familiar themes. Hogg draws another strong performance from Hiddleston, who plays a very different character from the ballsy recent school leaver in Unrelated, but again elicits internal screams of horror at his inappropriate relationship with someone outside his gang and over whom he holds a power he may not perceive. Most of all, Archipelago confirms Hogg as a daring and mischievous artist, and a major British talent whose next move will be intriguing.