In Arcadia, Paul Wright collates hours of footage from the BFI National Archive (among other reputable sources) and explores – in some uncertain terms – the relationship between the British and their land. This isn’t meant for any explicit political purpose (though the brief images of barbed wire and “private property” signs elicit a small reading on the Brexit-scale), but rather a literal description.
Wright and editor Michael Aaglund cut and stick together clips from silent films, old news items and dug-up documentaries – all to display a history between the Brits and their landscapes, ranging from deep-rooted traditional farming to the weird, Wicker Man-like cults and fêtes that sprouted in tiny villages.
There’s a youthful energy to this dizzily abstract documentary that one can’t help but be swept away with, if only for a short while. It’s like watching a surrealistic Dziga Vertov at work, with Malickian voiceovers (also snatched from the archives) floating in and out, as well as the natural and agricultural imagery that has hints of Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s 1930 film Earth. But most of all, this feature feels like a trippy anxiety dream about a very specific aspect of UK history and we’re happy to be pulled in, but only up to a point.
Despite masterful editing and a frightening score from Adrian Utley (Portishead) and Will Gregory (Goldfrapp), there are many moments that feel repetitive. It’s entertaining to watch city gents in bowler hats edited in parallel to cult members dancing naked on countryside grass, but the director exhausts this contrast early on – stretching every second of the film’s 78-minute runtime. However, it’s not long before the viewer’s attention is arrested again by grainy images of freaky children waving, or cultists dressed in frightening garments, or a woman combing her stuffed dog like it’s still alive.
The feature provides some keen (though clouded) historical insight into Britons and their land, but the filmmaker’s intentions feel muddled among his complicated stream of images. There’s one section showing punks enjoying a concert, which may well give the audience a sense of the time, but why are they relevant to the documentary’s central theme? Wright could’ve cut this to the length of a short film (he made four prior to this project) and he’d earn twice the quality. Arcadia is a dark and fascinating dream, but one we wouldn’t mind waking up from.
Arcadia is released in select cinemas on 21st June 2018.
Watch the trailer for Arcadia here: