"Unrelated": A New Kind of British Film By Roger Clarke

in 50th London BFI London Film Festival

by Roger Clarke

Joanna Hogg’s outstanding feature film Unrelated has a fluency and a freshness which is quite uncommon in a British film nowadays. UK production models continue to promote an obscurely troubling and philistine orthodoxy about what a British film should be — and now that costume drama has fallen off the radar, this usually either involves fluting, light contemporary comedy or generic gangster violence.

Hogg, a filmmaker who lives in London and whose credits include episodes of Eastenders and Casualty on British TV, has cited a fondness for Derek Jarman’s super8 films as a reference point. But it is to Eric Rohmer that she perhaps owes her greatness stylistic debt, both in subject matter and in execution, though one feels the great French auteur would never have tackled a subject quite so quietly visceral as this one (Breillat yes, Rohmer no). An English Rohmer film? An English film influenced by continental currents of filmmaking rather than the all-pervasive Hollywood model? What on earth is going on?

The story is a simple one which relies on performances, long takes and dialogue to convey its essence. Anna (Kathryn Worth) arrives late one evening at a luxurious villa in Tuscany, a summer rental organized by her friend Verena (Mary Roscoe). Along with Verena’s teenage children there’s another father with his son, Oakley (Tom Hiddleston), a charismatic public schoolboy who immediately begins a flirtatious interest in the older woman. What we slowly begin to realize, over anguished phone-calls to her partner back home (whose non-arrival she brushes under the carpet), is that Anna is mourning her lost youth and her lack of children.

For a few brief days she feels young again, feels she might even have an affair with this youth Oakley, but a succession of incidents turns the idyll very sour indeed. Hogg is especially good at the off-camera scene; the blazing almost murderous row between Verena’s husband and son is long and entirely overheard and all the more effective for it. Eventually, feeling humiliated, Anna moves out into a cheap hotel nearby, and the long scene where a wounded Verena arrives to have a confrontation with her is again striking in its truthfulness and power; this is also about friendship after all. Verena, taking their friendship for granted, really has no idea how little she actually knows about Anna.

Had this been a particular kind of modern French film it might have ended with something gruesome, a murder or a rape perhaps, but Hogg to her credit decides to go for an ending whose very banality feels, again, horribly accurate and true to life. Some have felt let down by the ending but I think it’s perfect, simply because it is a fizzling out, an acquiescence. You feel Anna has decided, as in the end of Brief Encounter, simply to make do and appreciate what she has got in an especially bruised and grateful way. In this sense of course what you have couldn’t be more British, for all the talk of Ozu and Chabrol and Rohmer who seem to have influenced Hogg’s aesthetic.

This low-budget small-scale project, using both professional and non-professional actors (Hiddlestone is a RADA trained actor and very far from an ingénue) is headlined by brilliant performances from Kathryn Worth and Tom Hiddlestone. It is a new kind of British film simply because it is also an old kind of British film, one that looks at the lives of the upper middle-class. I hope that other filmmakers feel emboldened to step outside the formulas and make something quite this good.