Paul Wright (director)
BFI Film (studio)
20 August 2018 (released)
19 September 2018
Paul Wright is indeed to be congratulated on this utterly compelling film about the British countryside – a sensory journey through time and seasons depicting the changing landscapes, customs and people by means of predominantly archive footage.
Just how long it took Wright to compile this film one can’t even begin to imagine. Here we have some 75 minutes of footage (mainly film clips), some of it well over a hundred years old. The film is divided into 10 segments beginning with 'Arcadia' and ending with 'Oblivion'. Near the beginning we see flowers blooming in speeded up motion, we then move into the beauty of the British landscape where we encounter time old traditions: harvesting and ploughing the fields, indeed what would the countryside be without a Shire horse? The quintessence of England's green and pleasant land - but if you are expecting an elegiac trip with Vaughan Williams landscape music you will be in for a bit of a shock. One feels that Mr. Wright is making an altogether more serious statement. This is a film that you need to see more than once. One cant help feeling that it would be even more appreciated by those of us who feel most at home with the soil amid the lay-lines and with the third eye wide open (the other two partially closed) with the fairies at Glastonbury Festival.
In truth, many will read their own interpretations into this complex piece which occasionally is quite horrific in a number of respects. Dutifully we are treated to a panorama of the things that have always appealed to seekers (after inner knowledge and spiritual enlightenment), forever stand the stones...or will they? The Druidic perennial mass of carefully constructed stones that we call Stonehenge (an image of Tor would have been nice) are featured and we also have the Cerne Abbas fertility giant, the Westbury White Horse and countless others. We see strange rituals enacted; some appear highly dangerous. Quite what was that they were doing at Padstow? The image of naked dancers, enjoying their absolute freedom ‘skyclad’ is suddenly juxtaposed with the monstrous bowler hat and brolly brigade in the city. The film is laden with juxtapositions. In one segment we witness a foxhunt (though these days with foxes in the cities attacking our lovely cats you may be less sympathetic to this kind of barbarism) while in another segment people are riding obscure animals, well, Emu's in this case. Men boxing with kangaroo's, basset hounds ripping up a fox, then young boys boxing - what exactly is director Wright saying here? Who exactly is any better?
The film is permeated by an original score by Adrian Utley and Will Gregory which serves Wright's purpose only too fittingly in its unnerving way. But that's not all! Furthermore we are treated to a number of songs by folk queen Ann Briggs… and suddenly things become even more unsettling. Segment 8 is truly disturbing, for this is a film about contrasts and it is not wholly on the side of ruralness. It isn't always easy to hear what is being said (again mostly from old footage), in Segment 5 for example - amid an Ann Briggs song - a male voice informs us: “The sooner we stop worshipping man in God's image the sooner we can get back to a proper affinity with law on which we so much depend (we see a swarm of departing bees), we need a new humility and a reverence for the environment”.
We end on the last Segment 10 which is fittingly entitled ‘Oblivion’ where we are confronted with the horrors of our misspent wisdom which doesn't have to be spelt out. ARCADIA is an occasionally unsettling yet frighteningly relevant and thought-provoking piece that deserves to be seen. Can we learn from it? Surely that was the director's intention. And how nice to end with Isla Cameron singing the theme music from the 1961 horror classic THE INNOCENTS: ‘O Willow Waly'.
As is usual with BFI we have a number of Extras though most of these consist of repeated archive footage images, only in different segments, the last of which is titled 'Peter and Ruby' and is from 1973 (though it could easily have been 1873). It is truly disgusting and may well convert a carnivore into a hardcore vegetarian - which can't be altogether a bad thing.