Arcadia (2017) ****

June 17th, 2018
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Paul Wright; Documentary; UK 2017, 78 min.

This unique documentary, a new archival/music mash-up, mostly black and white, is a paean to loss: the loss of our British countryside and its implications for the cultural identity of this green and pleasant land. ARCADIA is Paul Wright’s follow-up to his haunting mood piece For Those in Peril and relies much more on the atmospheric score by Adrian Utley and Will Gregory, than on its sparse commentary.

ARCADIA does not look back nostalgically at an ancient England, to the music of Jerusalem by Blake/Parry. Wright’s main intention here is to survey the loss, and how it came about. Nature, pure and rhythmic in its yearly cycles (told in nine chapters), dictates the ebb and flow of life via storms and floods that are all part of an existence, now seemingly lost forever. The fluid structure and absence of any narrative, lull the viewer into a dark past: woods are eerie places where a mysterious creature is always lurking round the corner: more witch than unicorn. Because Arcadia is anything but benevolent: the hardship and rough edges of eking out an existence on and off the land are shown, as well as the times of bucolic plenty expressed through Morris dancing and The Great Cheese Roll. These – traditions that are utterly pagan, Wright contrasts this with the current lust for acquisition and development,  even though some of images of industrialisation seem to be as old as the footage of nature lost. Arcadia is not a traditional documentary but a poetic essay oscillating between awe and despair. Only when we leave England and go North of Hadrian’s Wall, does the landscape becomes more rugged, and the atavistic nature of customs turns really almost sinister – recalling The Wicker Man.   

Wright mesmerises us into a state of meditation as the images infiltrate our subconscious allowing subliminal messages to take root. And there is some more substantial criticism: his most (and often unnecessary) repetitive images are those of naked women from the 50s, dancing and prancing, seemingly at one with the countryside, but showing only the filmmaker’s male gaze.

Arcadia casts a spell of the past, and one that is predominantly mysterious and dark, a retrospective vision of a way of life, now utterly gone; a little like Alice getting lost in a fairyland of the past, where shadows lurk behind pastoral scenes of bliss and otherworldly happiness. To return to Jerusalem: Wright choses to show us the heavens, which we have abandoned for the contemporary living hell. Angst-ridden and dystopian in its approach, Arcadia is a grim testament, beguilingly delivered. AS


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