The idea of a director ‘painting with light’ in the making of a film has become something of a lazy cliché. In the case of Archipelago, the new British film scrutinising every painful and discomforting nuance of a dysfunctional family holiday on the Scillonian island of Tresco, it is possibly the most apposite description of filmmaker Joanna Hogg’s technique.
The film opens with a shot of the shoreline in the process of being captured on canvas by the artist (Christopher Baker) employed to give the mother (Kate Fahy) and daughter (Lydia Leonard) of the family painting lessons during their stay. One of the first of many lingering static shots concentrates on his palette as he mixes the colours of the landscape.
Modest yet subtle, the chroma of the coastal environment as recreated in the paints prefigure the spectrum of tones that director Hogg employs for the film’s many interior scenes. This narrow range of colours runs to dull mauves, dusky pinks, diffuse yellows and drained eau de nils, investing the house in which the family plays out most of its crises with a bruised approximation of the island’s autumnal turbulence.
Just as the watercolour pigment seeps into the wetted paper during the women’s attempts at painting, so light seeps gradually in the spaces they inhabit; there are several shots of table lamps as the single light sources in rooms, with the resultant murkiness throwing a pall over attempts on the part of the family to settle their arguments, most of which centre on the decision of the son Edward (Tom Hiddleston) to take up an eleven-month VSO position in Africa. The interactions are shaded, sometimes the remarks and behaviour are vague, veiled as they are by the family’s upper-middle class tendency to skirt around the issues.
A daytime scene in the kitchen, a room like all the others that betrays the stale safety of a Farrow & Ball colour swatch chart in its decoration choices, features the cooking of lobsters. The hired hand (Amy Lloyd) explains how the colour of the lobsters will alter gradually from dark to pink during the cooking process, a delicate metaphor for the gradual shift from anaemic obfuscation to bloodshot temper as the emotional heat increases.
The shifting, seemingly unscripted dialogue complements the indistinct nature of the visuals. Often it is hard to tell what, if anything, is happening, but this is a film in which meaning is often communicated through what is missing from the picture rather than what is seen. The father of the family is not present – held up on the mainland by reasons unknown – and the effect of his non-appearance is perhaps echoed by the rectangular mark on one wall in the sitting room of the house left by a picture, taken down for the duration of the holiday. The difference in colour and tone between the clean space and the tidemark of dirt emphasises that there is a hole in this family’s relationship. When the painting is returned to its position towards the end of the film it is an image of cold, empty, silvery-grey waves, suggesting that even when the blanks are filled in the members of the family are still adrift and disconnected in an unrelenting ocean.