Unlike the French, who turn out movies about the haute bourgeoisie all the time, British filmmakers usually fight shy of portraying upper middle-class characters on screen. Not writer-director Joanna Hogg, though. With her feature film debut, Unrelated, she has come up with an acutely observed drama about well-heeled Brits at play in Tuscany – and she’s been rewarded with a slew of prizes, including The Guardian First Film Award, The Evening Standard Most Promising Newcomer Award and the prestigious FIPRESCI award at the 2007 London Film Festival.
Made on a miniscule budget using a mix of professional and non-professional actors, Hogg’s film could be taken for a kind of posh docu-drama, or a slice of up-market reality TV, but it is actually a lot more nuanced and subtly cinematic than those descriptions might suggest.
The film’s protagonist is a fortysomething woman named Anna, superbly played by screen newcomer Kathryn Worth, who has come to Tuscany to join the extended family of an old school friend in their large well-appointed rented villa in the area south of Siena known as the Crete Senesi.
From the start, it’s clear that something is wrong in Anna’s life. To the surprise of her friend Verena, she has arrived on her own – her husband has been left behind in London and a series of strained mobile phone calls to him (we only hear Anna’s side of the conversations) indicate some kind of estrangement.
Anna’s discomfort is exacerbated by other factors: she is evidently a few rungs further down the social ladder than her companions. And she is also childless. Put all this together and it’s perhaps unsurprising that Anna should drift away from the parents in the party – Verena and her new husband George and their friend Charlie – and gravitate towards their offspring, a group of teens led by charismatic Etonian Oakley (Tom Hiddleston, a rising star on the London stage who was recently seen as Kenneth Branagh’s junior colleague in Wallender).
Oakley radiates smug self-assurance, but it is youth as much as class that gives him his cocky aplomb. Yet even though Anna may be flattered by being allowed to booze and skinny-dip with his set, as opposed to languishing with “the olds”, as he calls the adults, you just know that her flirtation with him is bound to end painfully.
Hogg is brilliant at portraying the gamut of different shades of awkwardness and embarrassment: Anna’s social and personal uneasiness is conveyed with squirm-inducing veracity. And there is a marvelous sequence in which the group, sitting by the pool, painfully witnesses a blistering row taking place, indoors and off-camera, between Oakley and his father.
Watching Unrelated you wouldn’t know that Hogg is a veteran of such urgent, febrile TV shows as EastEnders, Casualty and London’s Burning. Here, she films scenes like the Oakley-father row with cool detachment, using extended takes and rarely moving the camera – an aesthetic choice that made a virtue of necessity, as Hogg explains in an interview on the DVD: the digital camera she used would have left pixellated images if she had attempted any bravura panning shots. But the movie’s stillness only heightens the churning emotions it depicts. Though the movie’s visual sensibility is distinctly European, its sensitivities are acutely English.