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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness



Archipelago is the second feature film by the British writer-director Joanna Hogg. Released in the UK in March 2011, it tells the story of an upper middle class family who are gathered together for a farewell family reunion in a rented house on Tresco, one of the Scilly Isles off the coast of Cornwall. In a style of cinema known as neorealism, the film is composed of still shots, eschews close ups until the later stages, and creates its intimate atmosphere through the use of natural light in both indoor and outdoor scenes. The audio track is composed solely of sounds from the environment it depicts. 



Additionally, and in keeping with neorealism, two of the characters are played by non-professional actors, the artist and the cook, and the scenes were filmed on location, in chronological order with a significant amount of improvisation in the dialogue. This creates a very realistic feel to the film and increases our voyeuristic involvement in its characters interactions, which are sometimes painfully difficult to watch. Infused with quiet desperation, lightly veiled unhappiness and unexpressed emotions, Archipelago tackles the uncomfortable truth that ‘all is not well’ beneath the surface of the apparently prosperous upper middle classes. In particular, the film examines the subject of absent fathers, in two different contexts, and the effect that this has on their young adult children. 

The Film

The film opens with the arrival of Edward (Tom Hiddleston), by helicopter, on Tresco, where he is met by his mother Patricia (Kate Fahy) and sister Cynthia (Lydia Leonard). The back story slowly unfolds as we learn that Edward, who is in his late twenties, has left his well paid city job and is soon to travel to Africa where he will work as a volunteer for eleven months, helping to teach sexual health within communities afflicted by AIDs. He outlines his need for a purpose in life but gradually reveals his uncertainty about whether he has actually made the right decision. Cynthia, his older sister, is critical of his choice and shows her resentment of his freedom to travel abroad in this way. Patricia, their mother, has arranged this farewell get together in a rented holiday home that they visited many times when Edward and Cynthia were young and where they all seem to recall fond memories. However, the full family reunion fails to take place as time passes and Patricia’s husband doesn’t arrive. We feel his distant presence only through phone calls that he makes to Patricia and Cynthia, in which Patricia becomes increasingly frustrated and let down by his absence at her longed for gathering. As his father’s failure to show up becomes more certain, Edward voices several critical and disrespectful comments about him, revealing their lack of closeness.

The two other significant characters in this drama are the cook, Rose, who has been hired to look after the culinary needs of the family during the holiday and Christopher an artist and friend who is engaged in teaching Patricia and Cynthia painting. The real life artist, Christopher Baker, describes his painting process as a need to find the chaos in representation while he resists exercising too much control, something Patricia openly acknowledges is hard for her to do. In contrast to the extremely controlling attitudes of both Patricia, her absent husband, and Cynthia, Christopher becomes a proxy father figure to the ‘hen pecked’, over compliant Edward as he tries to reflect on the meaning and purpose of his own life.

Rose, the paid cook, attracts the attention of Edward, who tries to treat her as an equal, in a way that brings criticism from both Patricia and Cynthia, as he befriends her and wants her to join the family at mealtimes, blurring the boundary of employer and employee. The ensuing debate gives rise to one especially embarrassing scene, in which we feel Rose’s discomfort acutely. However, we also learn that Rose’s father died suddenly in an accident a few years earlier and she, her mother and her sisters, have only just ‘emerged from the coma’ of grief that they were in. In an attempt to include Rose, the family invite her and Christopher to lunch at a hotel, empty at this time of year, where Cynthia creates a scene by complaining about her food, whilst the rest of the group remain mostly silent. Her growing anger and frustration is later released in a row at the house, but the real feeling of equilibrium only returns to the group when Patricia loses her temper with her husband on the phone just before the end of the holiday.

Relevance to the field of Mental Health

Archipelago is not a film that portrays overt mental illness, rather it seeks to give us an insight in to the complex origins of the problems that may drive someone to seek psychotherapy of some form. Cynthia’s unhappiness, irritability and seeming dissatisfaction with her self and the world, suggests that she might benefit from a psychological treatment. The film is so skillful at involving the viewer in the family’s interactions that it would definitely offer a great platform to discuss the role of unconscious motivations, inner conflicts and defence mechanisms that form the basis of psychoanalysis and the approach taken by psychoanalytic psychotherapy, described on the information pages of the British Association of Psychotherapists.

For a broader consideration of psychological therapies, a reading of the Royal College of Psychiatry factsheet on Psychotherapies could form the basis of a discussion on the whole variety of treatments that might be of use to the various characters in Archipelago were they to seek help. I would strongly recommend this film to anyone interested in, or actually working as a psychotherapist with individuals or families.

For anyone interested in a further psychoanalytic exploration of films, The Institute of Psychoanalysis is currently showing a series of films and discussions called Screening Conditions, which takes place on Sunday mornings, at The Institute of Contemporary Arts, London. Here is further information about all of the Institute’s events examining the relationship between psychoanalysis and the arts.

•  More information about Archipelago can be found at IMDB as can a short trailer.

•  The DVD can be purchased at

•  Minds on Film is written by Consultant Psychiatrist, Dr Joyce Almeida.



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About this blog


Minds on Film is a monthly blog that explores psychiatric conditions and mental health issues as portrayed in a selection of readily available films.

Please note that this blog may contain plot spoilers. Any views expressed are purely my own.

Dr Joyce Almeida
Dr Almeida is a consultant
psychiatrist working in the private sector in the UK.