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Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

I HAVE to admit that Joanna Hogg’s second feature, Archipelago, left me at odds with myself – even though it comes highly recommended.

I’m usually opposed to filmmakers who adopt a minimalist approach, positioning their camera in one place and allowing events to unfold almost naturally, as with Ruben Östlund’s Involuntary. I feel that belongs more in theatre, where the possibilities offered by the film medium aren’t as rich.

But Archipelago won me over in spite of this approach because of the power of its performances and the strength of its story.

Hogg’s approach may not be for everyone but it does reward the patient viewer. It’s also deeply thoughtful, wholly authentic and both tense and amusing.

The story is simple. Patricia (Kate Fahy) and her two adult children, Edward (Tom Hiddleston) and Cynthia (Lydia Leonard), arrive for a break at a holiday cottage in Tresco, on the Isles of Scilly, which is designed to provide Edward with a send-off before he departs for an 11-month stint volunteering in Africa.

But while the family in question looks, on the surface, to be a happy one, cracks soon start to appear in the facade as it becomes apparent that Edward is unsure of his decision or place within the family, while both mother and sister disapprove.

An absent father doesn’t help matters… but respite can be found in the hired cook Rose (Amy Lloyd) and a landscaper painter (Christopher Baker), who are unwittingly along for the ride.

Just as she did with her acclaimed debut Unrelated, Hogg proves highly adept at observing – but not judging – dysfunctional family dynamics.

In this case, the pace is leisurely at best and there are long stretches where nothing seemingly happens. But when frustrations do give rise to outbursts, the stage is set for fireworks and it’s fascinating to watch the cast interact with each other as tempers flare.

Cynthia’s mini meltdown in a restaurant over her under-cooked food is a masterful scene, as is a later dinner party at which she once again breaks the pained silence around them. Leonard, in the part, excels.

But then Hiddleston continues to build on a fast-growing reputation as the passive, confused Edward – expertly tapping into the insecurity and quiet despair of his character.

And Fahy is terrific as the mother, whose growing sense of rage – particularly with her absent husband – is nicely observed.

There’s strong support, too, from both Baker and Lloyd – the latter of whom garners most sympathy as the cook caught in the middle, and who often doesn’t know where to put herself to be out of the way.

Hogg, meanwhile, continues to establish herself as a brave and striking filmmaker who has a keen sense of her own identity and style. She isn’t afraid to take risks or examine an often underlooked section of British society in the movies, yet taps into an emotional honesty and sincerity with her style that only heightens the authenticity of the overall piece.

There are times, in fact, when you feel like a silent member of the family, sitting uncomfortably by as relationships breakdown – and feeling the same sense of awkwardness and embarassment as Rose.

Hence, for those willing to take the journey, Archipelago is a distinct, involving experience that’s well worth investing your time in. It’s a triumph for everyone involved.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 115mins
UK DVD Release: May 9, 2011