'The truth is in the soil'.
This is the line that bookends Arcadia, Paul Wright's surreal exploration of the primal, ritualistic connection to nature that subtly underpins Britain's culture. A montage made up entirely of archive footage provided by the British Film Institute and other organisations, Wright makes thematic connections using images of man and nature from England's past to great effect.
Although it seems to take place chronologically, opening with shots of cells dividing and flowers blooming before steadily progressing to the Industrial Revolution, Wright organises the clips via thematic title cards. These black screens bestowed with stark white words like 'Utopia' and 'Amnesia' assist you in cobbling together a coherent interpretation of the movie, but for the most part it feels like you're on your own. However, with a manageable runtime of only 78 minutes, the film leaves you alone with your thoughts a good while before the potential confusion becomes tedious.
Though Wright's creation is largely a testament to the power of editing, the archival clips by themselves prove intriguing. English traditions from across the past century are juxtaposed to emphasise a ritualistic and pagan quality that often goes unacknowledged; the controlled chaos of tar barrels and cheese rolling are cast in a new, slightly sinister light. It's also fascinating to see this tribal mentality acknowledged in a European context, a politically charged depiction on Wright's part. Imagery from South America and Africa is often used instead as a problematic shorthand for primitivism and barbarism, but here the trope is avoided.
Wright's concept may be fascinating, but it is truly Adrian Utley's score that keeps the surreal film feeling like a cohesive whole. Beginning with a calming melody reminiscent of Church hymns before gradually shifting to a darker, more dissonant tone reflective of the horrors on screen, it contributes hugely to the unsettling tone. Wright's images present an intellectual exercise, but Utley's music provides the emotion to go along with it.
Because of the nature of the clips, it is inevitable that Arcadia suffers from being visually very white and middle class. Arguably, it could have benefitted from a greater acknowledgement of colonialism and urbanisation when dealing with such environmental themes. But this could even be a comment on England itself: throughout decades of footage, the denial of non-traditional cultural developments is a deafening silence.
The extras certainly make this DVD worthwhile for those who desire a deeper explanation of Wright's intentions and the source material. A half-hour long interview with Wright is included in the special features, as well as an additional interview in an illustrated booklet. There are also nine short films available to watch that were woven into the montage at points - watching these in isolation can provide new insight into the open-ended main feature.