If there is one thing more cringeworthy than Brits abroad then surely it is pompous, middle-class Brits abroad, so the fact that Unrelated, which centres on a group of such horrors holidaying in Chiantishire, is in any way engaging is very little short of a miracle; what emerges is a sensitive and touching examination of what it means to be ‘middle-aged’ in these times, and flags up first-time feature director Joanna Hogg as a possible auteur of the future.
The setting is the Tuscan countryside near Siena, and a picturesque villa in which a group of well-to-do British families are summering. We are given very little in the way of exposition, which allows the dynamics between the main characters to emerge naturally through their interactions: the newly-arrived Anna has turned up without her husband, and there is implication that something disastrous has happened between them to explain his absence. Her old friend Verena seems in charge of most matters, and is enjoying her vacation with her new-ish husband, a family friend, and an assortment of adolescent offspring.
What follows is Anna’s speedy assimilation into the ‘youngs’ group, given relatively free reign in their Italian holiday home by the ‘olds’ who want to kick back and relax in their Mediterranean surrounds. In particular, Anna takes a shine to the confident, teetering into cocky, young Oakley, who appears to reciprocate her admiring glances. A few carefully placed anecdotes with the ‘olds’ place Anna a little at odds with her similarly-aged companions, and she clearly thrives on reliving her youth with the obnoxious, over-confident younglings. But as things progress, it becomes clear that the age difference, as much as it is irrelevant in so many circumstances, becomes too much in many ways.
Other critics have been keen to point to the fact that there is a dearth of films about the British middle-classes as opposed to, say, the great French tradition of such films. So it is quite refreshing, despite the obvious horrors of seeing such horrendously over-confident brats and their parents indulging in middle-class decadence, to see such a situation portrayed on-screen. Anyone who comes into contact with such people will instantly identify the archetypes we see: the busybody mother, the hypertense careerist father, the alpha-male lecherous twat of a son and the namby-pamby daughter, all viewed through the lens of Anna, who we presume is similarly bourgeois, but whose unnamed life crisis is causing her to rethink her preconceptions and expectations of life.
As few films there are about the British bourgeoisie, there are perhaps fewer about women of what would be euphemistically described as being ‘of a certain age’, and once again it is great to see a British director, especially one making their first feature, to look at this issue head on. The film offers no simple answers, no Richard Curtis-like easy options, and in summation (despite an ending which is perhaps a little too neat and tidy for my liking) gives a well-argued perspective on what it sets out to portray. There is also much to applaud in its overall visual style: there is always the danger of this type of film turning into a glorified travelogue, but the camera never strays too far from the characters’ faces, frequently focusing in on their reactions to dialogue as opposed to those who are speaking, giving much more of an insight into character than straightforward shot/reverse shot would.
Joanna Hogg cut her directorial teeth with television dramas such as London Bridge and Casualty, but here she has demonstrated a very fine eye for well-observed, character-driven drama which makes for fine cinematic viewing, and with enough style and eye for detail which suggests there is much to come from her; let us hope her talent is given the chance to shine in the future.