With access to over 100 years of archived BFI footage, director Paul Wright has stitched together a tapestry of the relationship between those of us who have lived in Britain during that period and the land that forms such an integral part of our existence. From the beauty and poetry that continues to inspire, to the blood and horror that has potholed so much of our history, Arcadia is a visually experimental and enchanting journey through time.
The video imagery is set to a soundtrack by Portishead’s Adrian Utley and Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory who build an, at times, intense electronic symphony that stretches from placid orchestral music to hard-hitting techno – the latter used in a sequence which moves through the ages to demonstrate how communal dancing and outdoor celebrations continue to bring people together. Wright splits the narrative into ten sections under titles such as Amnesia, Blood in the Soil and Winter Solstice, slowly shifting through the changing seasons across the British countryside.
Wright has concocted a viscerally strange brew that acts as a cross between God’s Own Country and Dawson City: Frozen Time, with a dash of Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale. Just as the footage and score are combining to send you into a heightened emotional space, Wright swiftly changes direction to keep the narrative fresh and involving. Aided by Utley and Gregory’s score you become immersed in a history lesson being told in the most unorthodox method possible.
The sequences are often left open to interpretation, showing everything from the hard graft that goes into cultivating the land to the bizarre folk traditions that formed a vital part of village life. The rural communities that once gave so much to the economy have dwindled with the rise of manufacturing and the growth of city life, and although political agendas could be applied, Wright displays a keener interest in paying respect to the landscape and the workers that have given, and taken, from it.
Some of the older black and white imagery adds an ethereal quality due to its poor grainy quality, creating a sense of mysticism that reflects so much of the landscape found outside of urban spaces. The countryside maintains something of a sinister edge underneath its beauty because away from the plush greenery and rolling hills lies the brutal fight for daily survival amongst the wildlife that call it home.
While a celebration of the countryside Arcadia also looks at the human exploitation that has damaged so much of it, effecting both the animals and the people living there. Where the land once remained untouched for so long Wright suggests a bleaker future that may eventually sever our innate connection to nature with our commitment to technological evolution meaning we abandon it completely.
A certain darkness pervades Arcadia, even though it offers more than enough appreciation and homage to the land, while locating a strain of the strange eccentricity that forms an essential part of the English DNA. Wright has stitched together a beguiling film, helped by Michael Aaglund’s razor sharp editing, creating something that needs to be experienced rather than simply watched.