I very much like the series of films that have been put together using the BFI’s vast archive, of which this 2018 release – by Paul Wright – is the latest. There’s something about the historical aspect, and the general strangeness of some of the footage (particularly from the earlier half of the last century) that appeals, as well as the fact that they serve as illuminating guides to British life and highlight some important 20th century social change, with regard to class, gender politics, leisure time, war, immigration, declining industry, etc.
Kim Longinotto’s Love Is All was a spirited run-through of romance in British cinema (scored, aptly, by crooner Richard Hawley); Benedikt Erlingsson’s The Show Of Shows examined circuses and other similar forms of entertainment with a soundtrack from Sigur Rós and Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson; and Penny Woolcock’s From The Sea To The Land Beyond was a powerful illustration of life lived at the coast, with British Sea Power re-purposing some of their earlier songs for the occasion. Wright’s film is, roughly speaking, about the countryside, and he uses the setting to explore aspects of the British psyche and society, pointedly depicting both a bucolic Utopia – indeed ‘Utopia’ is one of several intertitles used to split the film into specific segments or chapters – and a more nightmarish, psychedelic space that’s characterised by folk horror, disturbing or bizarre rituals, huge class and economic gulfs and plenty more besides. This one has been scored by Adrian Utley of Portishead and Will Gregory of Goldfrapp, though some traditional and atmospheric folk music makes the cut too.
I liked the score, overall, as it shifts and encompasses different styles of music, depending on the chapter, but it does begin to affect your interpretation of the footage a little too much for my liking. For example, the ominous-sounding thrum that accompanies film of Morris men dancing suggests a dark, menacing undertone to the action that is taking place, and while such dancers are certainly seen as being quirky today, I’m not entirely sure they represent British folk tradition at its weirdest or most threatening. But still, the music certainly helps to tie all of the assembled footage together, so I’m wary of complaining too much about it; it’s a soundtrack I would like to buy, but haven’t got round to yet.
While watching the film, I found that some of the dots that Wright joins together are a bit of a stretch; one example would be a section in which punk – really something I’d say was a preserve of more urban areas, particularly during its heyday – is linked to the underground raves and festivals that became emblematic of British outsider culture, and were later turned into massive cash-generating enterprises by some rural landowners. I guess there is a wider point being made here, perhaps about the way in which culture more recently has tended to trickle outwardly from cities, but it does seem a little unclear to me; and while there’s certainly a theme here about people escaping to the countryside to let themselves go – nude hippies and naturalists feature regularly throughout – any footage here that looks like it was made in a town or city seems oddly intrusive and out of place.
That said, part of the appeal of Arcadia is its oddness, the times when its rambling looseness and the accumulation of footage seems to build into or generate something greater, some repeated point about how strange British people are; although there is a coherence and organisation too, mostly thanks to the chapter-based structure. It is a restless work that is packed with ideas and there are many successfully forged links, while there is definitely a thrill to be had in going along with it and simply enjoying the sheer variety of archive material that Wright has uncovered and used. Perhaps it doesn’t matter all that much if some aspects are tied together more tightly than others.
I thought Arcadia is at its best when it is suggesting an underlying oddness existing within the countryside, but there is real breadth to the included footage: fox hunting, the beauty of the landscape and nature (as well as its harmfulness), farming, cheese-rolling, the gradual removal of services from village life – there is much to ponder in this deliciously offbeat amalgamation. It probably lands better with those who have experience of living in the UK and who will therefore pick up on some of the subtler suggestions, but I dare say if you have a more general interest in life anywhere there is something for you to enjoy. As it stands, it probably just about edges Frederick Wiseman’s thorough paean to the community services of the New York Public Library, Ex Libris, and Agnès Varda and JD’s warm study of art, ageing and people, Faces, Places, as my favourite documentary of 2018. (4.5)