Scottish filmmaker Paul Wright raids the BFI archives to create a dreamy study of rural life that's both nostalgic and nightmarish
Paul Wright (For Those in Peril) slices apart and stitches together a hundred years of footage from the BFI National Archive to create something that is both nostalgic and nightmarish. Arcadia is an at times disturbing exploration of the relationship between the British countryside and its inhabitants. The film is split into ten parts, each with a title that helps frame the oneiric flood of visuals that are to follow.
An unnamed protagonist, searching for truth, views Britain through the seasons. From joyful folk dancing, and the harvest of the crops by scythe, to the mechanisation of farming and the poverty of those left behind by urbanisation. Whenever a sequence of clips builds a sense of hope, suggesting a genuine positive connection with the land through images of nudists frolicking in rivers or people caring for animals, Wright immediately shifts the tone. The bucolic and pastoral are juxtaposed with fire and desolation. The sequences, although open to individual interpretation, have their effect guided by a score, from Adrian Utley (Portishead) and Will Gregory (Goldfrapp), that colours the visuals with emotion. Repeating images demonstrate this when they are accompanied with either a haunting and sparse electronic beat or an uplifting harmonic string quartet.
The overall impression is similar to that of a folk-horror film, such as Robin Hardy’s The Wickerman or David Gladwell’s Requiem for a Village, clips from which feature in Arcadia. In particular, the combination of footage showing the brutal treatment of animals interspersed with revolving, masked folk dancers, and Stonehenge. However, there are hopeful elements. Indeed, the final sequence is profoundly uplifting – greatly due to an excellent score blending classical and modern instrumentation.
It is hard not to allow recent political events to affect one’s reading of the film. Nostalgia always succumbs to the brutal reality.
Arcadia screened at Glasgow Film Festival 2018