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Kino // Unrated // November 4, 2014
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted December 24, 2014 | E-mail the Author
At one point during Archipelago, a painter named Christopher (Christopher Baker) talks about abstraction with his student Patricia (Kate Fahy). He summarizes it as "a way of simplifying and distilling the important information, so you...get your intention clear." It's a comment that will no doubt pop up frequently in the minds of viewers as they watch Joanna Hogg's second feature. Building off of her first film, Unrelated, the film is another exercise in deliberate pacing, slowly soaking up the details of a dysfunctional family's tense vacation on the Isles of Scilly. Her work is simultaneously specific and abstract, with the drama woven out of details as specific as a word choice or a glance, performed by characters with detailed interpersonal histories but little in the way of distinct personality traits.

The reasoning for the family gathering is Edward (Tom Hiddleston, one of Hogg's repertory players), who is planning to leave his life behind for a year in order to travel to Africa and help AIDS prevention efforts by teaching safe sex. Patricia is his mother, who has taken up painting as a hobby. She has invited Edward's father, despite the fact that they are separated, and he has promised to show up later. Cynthia (Lydia Leonard) is Edward's sister, and she harbors an obvious resentment toward Edward, who she believes is being cavalier with his life and avoiding responsibility. In addition to the three family members, there is also a chef, Rose (Amy Lloyd) and the painter, Christopher, both hired by Patricia for the duration of the holiday.

As the weekend goes on, Hogg studies the passive-aggressive tension between the three family members, especially Edward and Cynthia, which steadily increases as the weekend goes on. It's as reserved as fury gets, with most offenses ranging from a casually dismissive question to an ill-timed comment, and displays of frustration peaking at characters leaving the dinner table. It's extremely low-key, but there's an honesty to these kinds of conflicts. When Edward explains his motivations for wanting to help out, his mother quietly replies, "you don't think it's a lost cause?" I'm sure most of us have had a similar moment explaining passions to our own parents. Cynthia's type of motor-mouthed self-absolution is also familiar, frequently making a scene that stems from her own pettiness, then pushing fault on others when her actions make situations awkward.

That said, my feeling that Hogg's films would be greatly improved with a bit more ruthlessness in the editing room remains unchanged. Hogg's style is as unintrusive as possible: very long takes and locked camera angles lasting entire scenes (I don't think there's a pan in the entire movie). Many of these bits are striking or serve an obvious purpose. Hogg constantly frames her characters as smaller figures within the natural beauty of the islands, such as a tall, rocky hill, a cliffside overlooking the shore, or on a path past a tree that looks like it was shot down from the sky like a lightning bolt. A shot of Rose trying to navigate a path out of a rocky cave contains obvious symbolism, and another lingering sequence where Edward hangs out in the kitchen is meant to be uncomfortable. However, there are other more unconvincing moments, such as three minutes of Edward climbing into bed, five minutes of the family putting shoes and jackets on as they leave for the picnic, or four minutes of Rose cleaning up the kitchen, which seem to be detail for detail's sake. Even keeping Hogg's minimalistic style in mind, nearly 20 minutes could probably go from Archipelago with almost no effect on the film's dramatic impact.

The performances are all very good, although none of them are showy. Most of the drama is internalized, and the film's one explosive shouting sequence, much like the one in Unrelated is heard from a distance, with Hogg observing the other characters reacting to the argument instead. For many viewers, Archipelago will be a frustrating experience, a film that holds them at arms length over an incredibly small small sea change in the characters' lives through incredibly tiny injustices. Once again, Christopher's wisdom about abstract painting pops up, this time offered to Edward. "You do all the things that are not right, but they contribute to the thing that is right. Nothing is lost, it's all accumulating." Hogg's films are an exercise in accumulation, in the hope that the little details will resolve a larger picture. Some of them are more effective than others.

Kino Lorber offers Archipelago on DVD with its original poster art intact, depicting the cast walking up a cliffside away from the water. The image is a little strange, reducing their surroundings to silhouette; it feels so distinctly stylized that it doesn't actually call to mind the sequence it's based on from the film. The single-disc release comes in an eco-friendly Amaray case (less plastic, no holes), and there is no insert.

The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and with a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, Archipelago is underwhelming on DVD. A lack of contrast flattens an image already taking place in a number of dimly lit environments into a mush of soft artifacts. Fine detail is almost non-existent and colors are frequently drab, although that may be intentional. The 5.1 track only has dialogue to contend with for the most part (two stand-out sequences involve the elements, one being Rose making her way out of the cave, and the other being Edward walking down a trail during heavy winds), but it still fails to clearly pick up some of the quieter whispering between the characters, and there are no subtitles or captions to help the viewer fill in the gaps (something especially frustrating considering Hogg's three Kino Lorber films have been added to Netflix, with subtitle streams). On the technical front, a mediocre disc.

The Extras
A still gallery is the only extra. An original theatrical trailer is also included.

In my mind, Archipelago represents an improvement on Unrelated, but Joanna Hogg's extremely minimalistic directing style is an acquired taste that will suit a specific type of filmgoer. Lightly recommended.

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