Two new films that might broadly be grouped together as British comedies of manners: Submarine, the much-praised debut of Richard Ayoade (released yesterday), and Archipelago, the second film by Joanna Hogg (out since March 4, if you live near an arthouse). The former actually supplies laughs that are framed in awkwardness; the latter dares you to laugh at the awkwardness on show. Neither could be made about foreigners, nor set in a foreign country, and yet each has a stylistic European sensibility.
Right, that’s enough of trying to find threads between them. But I saw them both this week, and they struck me as rooted in similar observational territory. Submarine first, as it arrives on a wave of hype that’s gratifying but cannot be lived up to. I have met Richard Ayoade on a number of occasions – and greatly admire his work – and although I’m not going to claim him as a close showbiz friend, he was gracious enough to stop and chat to me when I bumped into him the week he appeared on the cover of Sight & Sound in October, an honour that had caught him offguard and clearly made him feel slightly odd. (Lee Mack and I used to meet up with him in the kitchenette of a soulless office building when we were writing the first series of Not Going Out and he and Matt Holness were writing Man To Man With Dean Lerner; I interviewed him onstage last year at a Bafta event heralding the return of The IT Crowd, where his discomfort at being interviewed became all too apparent.)
His achievement with Submarine, an adaptation of a 2008 novel nobody seems to have read about a Swansea geek losing his virginity by Joe Dunthorne, is immense. From this obscure raw material Ayoade (I’d better use his surname for distancing critical effect) has fashioned a debut that instantly announces him as a talent. It is singular and ambitious and stylised, and draws as much upon the nouvelle vague as it does Gregory’s Girl and Adrian Mole. It is well cast and sympathetically scored by Alex Turner, a mate of Ayoade’s following his work with the Arctic Monkeys. Comparisons to Wes Anderson have been made, and the remote, episodic, storybook presentation certainly reminds you of the Texan’s work.
Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige are screen-filling young performers, and their gawky, matter-of-fact love affair dominates the story. His expressionless demeanour – an echo of his character Oliver’s coldly calculating, self-mythologising inner voice – is an arresting visual, but as a result a chasm opens up between the protagonist and the audience. This is clearly deliberate on Ayoade’s part, but it does mean it’s hard to become emotionally involved. Sally Hawkins and Noal Taylor do great work with the mum and dad, but, again, it’s super-stylised acting, and they verge on caricature. Paddy Considine, whose presence is never anything but welcome in any film, makes his ridiculous self-help guru the broadest of cartoons, and puts you at further remove from the story’s heart.
The tricks – the constant allusions to 400 Blows, the camera moves and cine footage actually mentioned in the narration, the fireworks literal and technical – speak of a director whose confidence is sky high, and there are some great gags in the writing and the framing, but if someone saw Submarine and said they felt it was a clinical experience and didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t argue them down. I happened to like it for those reasons, and admired it for its lack of schmaltz or cutesiness, but it won’t be for everyone.
Nor will Achipelago, in which a family gather on one of the Scilly Isles (we only know this because they arrive by helicopter with Isles of Scilly written on the side) as the son Edward (Tom Hiddleston) is going away to Africa to in effect do missionary work. Well, it’s quite a send off. It’s a beautiful setting, but bleak and barely populated, and Joanna Hogg is very keen to show us the difference between the bright light of the natural environment and the darkness of this family’s inner life: the cottage they have rented is like a tomb, a gloomy, low-ceilinged place where the table lamps cast only a queasy orange smudge in the corner of a room, even when characters are supposed to be reading by them. (While having a photo taken, Edward is told off for having sunlight on his face. “Sorry,” he deadpans.)
It’s a quietly audacious trick on Hogg’s part, as when we’re inside the house with the neurotic mum (Kate Fahy) and bossy, passive-aggressive, also neurotic sister Cynthia (Lydia Leonard), we are desperate to get out. As, seemingly, are they. It’s not at the Mike Leigh level of farce, but the tension is palpable. This is not a happy family. The father, who is supposed to be joining them, becomes the Godot for whom they are all waiting. Meanwhile, the benign and calming presence of Rose the cook and Christopher the painting tutor (both played by non-actors – a cook and a painter!) can only alleviate the agony briefly.
It’s hell in there. And it’s hell because, like all good middle class English people, they don’t say what they mean. It’s all bottled up so that the resentment can curdle into cancers for later life. You don’t blame the dad for staying away. The performances by Hiddleston, Fahy and Leonard, none of whom I recognised, are spotless: authentic, controlled and affecting and if comic, only mordantly so. I’ve not seen Joanna Hogg’s first film, Unrelated – which I understand is also about a holiday – but I must, now. While Mike Leigh plays awkwardness and tension for grim pantomime, Hogg seems content to let the misery and doubt simmer, like lobsters in a pot, slowly dying and perhaps already in a coma. (I didn’t invent the lobster analogy, she actually shows lobsters in a pot.)
It seem significant that a) the family choose to convene on a remote island – nominally somewhere foreign, and b) the reason they are here is that one of them is going somewhere far, far away, a place where people are dying of AIDS and might as well be on another planet. These are people who seem uncomfortable in their own skin, in their own social class, and their own country. Is this what the English have become? We who once ran half the world (the father is caricatured as a huntin’ and fishin’ type, a relic from the age of Empire?) are now condemned to sit around dinner tables, not saying what we mean, burying inconvenient truths, or hinting impotently around them, and building up a head of rage that might go off at any minute. (Edward seems to brighten in the presence of the cook, Rose, but he is also unable to make a connection with her, and sparks a dinner table row when he suggests she should eat with them, while his mother and sister insist she should not, as she’s paid to cook for them.)
I found Archipelago grimly spellbinding. Horrible, but hypnotic. And there are no easy answers here either, so don’t go looking for them. In, say, Secrets And Lies, the climactic family barbecue is a flashpoint, at which everything comes out, like a boil being burst. Nothing like that here.
So, one’s about the Welsh rather than the English, but both Submarine and Archipelago trade on social awkwardness that seems to be one of the few exports we have left in this country. What kind of films would we make if we were French? Oh yeah, French films.