Reviews and notes
2008 Portland, Wisconsin
2009 Wellington (Showcase)
This first feature from television director Joanna Hogg is a surprising, sensitive and compelling study of upper middle-class mores and middle-age hang-ups. Hogg casts the unknown Kathryn Worth as Anna, a sad soul and old friend of solid Verena (Mary Roscoe), a no-nonsense home counties sort of lady who’s enjoying a break with her new husband, another male friend and their various teenage children. A hidden trauma is making Anna behave oddly: she drifts towards the kids and away from the adults, and is especially taken by Etonian Oakley (Tom Hiddleston), the oldest, whose maturity isn’t as developed as Anna’s behaviour implies. Hogg displays a welcome desire to draw on global film influences and ignore the unwritten rules of what British cinema should or should not seek to achieve, especially in the realm of films about the monied and unsympathetic.
- Dave Calhoun, Time Out.
As if from nowhere, a first-time British film-maker has appeared with a tremendously accomplished, subtle and supremely confident feature, authorially distinctive and positively dripping with technique. Writer-director Joanna Hogg learned her trade in TV, and this may look like a chamber piece at first glance. Actually, it's ambitious, big-screen stuff. Hogg has genuine cinematic artistry, and she has effortlessly absorbed what appear to be personal contacts, non-professionals and family friends into an intelligent and utterly involving film.
is about a group of people who could hardly be less sympathetic. The scene is a handsome rented villa in Tuscany, where a group of upper-middle-class, upper-middle-youth Brits are summering - that smug intransitive verb is somehow the only appropriate term. Yet they are never punished for being posh, despite the fact that at least one is an Old Etonian.
These are evidently two families who have known each other for many years, and they have brought along their spoilt children, who are 18 or so. The grown-ups enjoy leisurely meals and improving excursions; the OK-yah younger generation are permitted to whizz independently around in a little Fiat, trustingly lent by their parents' friends. They drink and fool around by the pool late at night, smoke dope which contacts have posted to them from the UK in a jiffy bag, and refer contemptuously to their parents' group as the "olds". The key male figures are Oakley (Tom Hiddleston), a handsome, arrogant young dude who has a needling relationship with his father, George (David Rintoul), a blustering, vigorous, prosperous type, bald in a high-testosterone sort of way.
Into this situation steps fortysomething Anna (marvellously played by Kathryn Worth), who is an old schoolfriend of one of the women present. Anna is supposed to have come with her partner, but has actually arrived alone and in a state of some personal crisis. It is instantly clear that Anna is something of a poor relation, much less happy and well off than her contemporaries, invited out of a sense of charity. And to the unease of almost everyone present, Anna starts to hang out with the youngsters, finding that with this crowd she has some status. As Anna starts luxuriating in and out of her swimming costume for poolside romps - her Penguin Dante is soon discarded - there is a tingle between her and comely young Oakley. Unresolved sexual tension starts cranking up under the burning Italian sun, and Anna soon finds a crisis of loyalty between her new young pseudo-friends and the ever-present "olds".
was directed by Lucrecia Martel, the disjointed, disorientated, unrelated feel would predominate, and matters might end in dazed mystery; if it was made by Alexander Payne, the menopausal theme might predominate, and the focus would alight on Oakley and George's relationship. Lukas Moodysson would have given us a money shot, and if it was made by Michael Haneke, of course, everyone would be tortured to death by strangers over 180 minutes of screen time. But Joanna Hogg quietly insists on her own story - a very English one, replete with unhappiness and embarrassment, and overwhelmingly convincing.
Hogg establishes the scene with austere, fixed-position camera setups and a coolly reserved "middle distance" sound design for dialogue, a procedural self-deprecation that allows us to observe and overhear events at one remove. For the audience, it makes the experience at once prurient and dispassionate; Big Brother and reality TV are another influence.
With the arrogance of monied youth, Oakley starts asking Anna all sorts of insolent questions about her life choices, a familiarity she tolerates, all too clearly because she thinks it's the prelude to a sexual adventure. Her vulnerability is never more exposed than in these encounters, and also in the tense mobile-phone conversations she has with her estranged partner. She has to climb high on lonely hillsides to get a signal; Hogg has created a telling image of inertia and seclusion from mobile telecommunications.
Meanwhile, the dysfunctional alpha-male contest between Oakley and George comes to a crisis, inadvertently stoked by Anna. It culminates in a spectacular row indoors, which Hogg brilliantly represents with a bravura extended shot, simply showing the mortified family group having to listen outside by the pool. Then there's another superbly low-key sequence in which George declares he will turn his back on Oakley: "I don't want that supercilious prat of a son giving me dumb insolence all the time; I've decided not to care too much what he does in his life ... he'll be all right." Does he mean that? Has he said it many times before? Who knows? But it is tremendously performed, and structurally positioned by Hogg with great judgment and subtlety. It is also very, very sad. Yet, enigmatically, it appears to have no more ostensible dramatic weight than another scene: an elegant setpiece with wealthy Anglo-Italian acquaintances who are ruefully proud of a couch that once belonged to Mussolini.
The endgame of all this is anticlimactic in many ways, but anticlimactic in ways that are true to life. What an exhilarating, fascinating film this is - and what a find we have in Joanna Hogg.
- Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, 19 September 2008.
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