Joanna Hogg helped give us Tom Hiddleston
Hogg saw talent in Tom Hiddleston long before most of the film world knew who he was. Unrelated (2007) and Archipelago (2010) were two of his first leading roles, both released before he launched into international fame with the Marvel movies. Hiddleston has since made a cameo appearance in Hogg’s third film, Exhibition (2013), but there’s no word of him working with her again in any major way. One can only hope that he gets another chance to collaborate with her, because his performances in Hogg films are among his best work.
I was first introduced to Hogg’s films way after Hiddleston became a superstar. I had never really understood his appeal, having only seen him in Marvel films and as a rather uninteresting leading man in High-Rise. He seemed nothing more than another posh British actor who’d somehow managed to win his way into the big leagues with some thin layer of charisma. But watching Unrelated changed my perception entirely. As Alex Heeney points out in her essay on the ups and downs of Hiddleston’s career, Hiddleston has talent to spare — it just hasn’t been used right. Hogg knows how to use it.
In Unrelated, as the young and dashing (and blond) Oakley, Hiddleston is cheeky, sexy, and cunning. He’s the film’s object of desire, seen from the perspective of Anna (Kathryn Worth), who’s going through a midlife crisis. Hogg channels Hiddleston’s charm in just the right way for it to be irresistible. What’s more, it’s a role in which Hiddleston gets to have fun and not take himself too seriously, something we see too little of from him. It’s one of his only screen roles where he truly feels young.
Hiddleston’s Edward in Archipelago is less of a ‘fun’ role: he’s the son of a highly dysfunctional upper middle class family whose issues come to a head during an island vacation. There’s a certain kindness to Edward… or at least he has good intentions, however misplaced. But like all of these characters, he’s also grating, and gratingly posh. It’s one of Hiddleston’s only parts where his inherent straight-laced poshness is actually explored and dissected, rather than simply being a default element of his performance.
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Joanna Hogg really gets the cinematic potential of dinner tables
For Hogg, a dinner table is the ultimate vessel for passive aggression. There’s nothing like a Hogg dinner scene to make you cringe and want to avert your eyes.
Eating a meal with a group of people — whether it be family or friends — is such a mundane, recognisable activity. That’s why Hogg finds such cinematic potential in disrupting that normalcy with unspoken ill-feelings. These upper middle class characters are so concerned with how other people view them that they’re desperate to maintain that look of normalcy.
In a scene in Archipelago, the family continues to eat, their eyes firmly glued to their plates, their voices calm as they talk — but the words they’re saying are acidic and hurtful. If you turned the sound off, you’d think everything was alright, but underneath that picture perfect visage is a world of unresolved issues. In the taut silence between words, the clink of cutlery on china becomes unbearably loud.
Joanna Hogg is not afraid to self-reflect
Julie — the character in The Souvenir who represents Hogg’s younger self — wants to remove herself from her posh upbringing and make a film about a working class experience far from her own. Yet Hogg herself ended up doing the opposite. Her films are reflections on her own class, and they don’t pull punches.
There are plenty of upper middle class filmmakers like Hogg, but not many who are so aware of the privileged space they occupy and so willing to critique it from the inside. Her characters are repressed, obstinate, arrogant, and often annoying. There’s a certain tough love with her filmmaking: these are people she knows, so she treats them with humanity, but she doesn’t let them get away with anything.
Hogg’s willingness to put herself under the microscope in this way comes to fruition in The Souvenir, which is literally about herself. She’s fictionalised a version of the tumultuous, life-changing relationship she had when she was a film student in the ‘80s. She’s so blatant about the fact that this character is her that the apartment Julie lives in is an exact replica of Hogg’s student apartment. It takes guts to expose yourself like that.
Joanna Hogg challenges you to look away from the screen
A Joanna Hogg film will make you feel more full on physical revulsion than most horror movies. From Anna’s (Kathryn Worth) cringe-worthy obsession with the much younger Oakley (Tom Hiddleston) in Unrelated, to Cynthia’s (Lydia Leonard) smug complaints at a restaurant in Archipelago (2010), Hogg has crafted her fair share of horrifying moments.
This particular kind of horror, which causes even the bravest of souls to look away from the screen, is borne from its absolute, scathing truthfulness. Cynthia’s righteousness with customer service workers is particularly awful to watch because I know these people exist, in abundance — I’ve met them. Especially living in Britain: Hogg precisely pinpoints a specific kind of British upper middle class entitlement that’s all too real. We want to look away because it’s hard to face just how real it is.
She’s a connoisseur of depressing vacations
With the exception of Exhibition, all of Hogg’s films feature characters going on vacation — some of the most depressing vacations you could imagine. These getaways end up putting these characters face to face with the very problems they were trying to escape.
Unrelated’s Anna runs away from a rough patch in her marriage to holiday with friends in Italy, but when she gets there, she feels out of place in the group. It’s a midlife crisis induced vacation that ends up kicking that crisis into full swing, especially when Anna starts swooning over a much younger man.
Archipelago is another film set during a vacation, this time a family holiday to Scilly. What’s supposed to be one last warm family get together (on a cold and windswept island) before son Edward goes off to Africa for a year turns sour. The family passive aggressively bickers the whole time; being stuck together in a confined space brings all of their issues to the surface. What’s more, the family unit isn’t even complete: the father is notably absent for the entire film.
Finally, The Souvenir features one extremely memorable (and extremely brief) set piece in Venice. Anthony (Tom Burke) whisks Julie (Honor Swinton-Byrne) off to Venice for a brief getaway. We see the trip in a series of fleeting vignettes that give us a sense of how the trip felt while leaving us in the dark about how exactly it played out. When Julie arrives in her hotel room, she’s small in the frame, with a wide expanse of space above and around her. She quietly cries in the corner of the room, perhaps because travelling all the way to Italy hasn’t fixed anything like she thought it might. The sequence is over before it began; we cut straight back to their apartment in London without warning. Suddenly, it’s back to reality. The brevity of their trip is a harsh reminder of how a trip that was supposed to be so grand and further the couple’s intimacy can ultimately, in reality, be insignificant.