The ultimate found footage film? The ultimate folk horror film? The ultimate documentary? There is a loose narrative that frames Paul Wright’s Arcadia, that of an inherent anxiety about what lives at the heart of rural Britain, something malevolent or at least inimical, not easily defined yet ever-present, lurking.
We start with a sinister, silhouette, reminiscent of Hitchcock himself.
This is one of the few sequences specially filmed and we will glimpse the “fair maiden” as the film progresses.
What follows is 80 minutes of archive footage of the British landscape and its relationship with those that live with and off it. There are bucolic images and pastoral scenes aplenty but this is no wistful longing for an imagined past and any attempt to claim this film as a Brexiteer ideologue fails to address the dark undertone that’s being presented to us. Indeed such an ideologue equally fails on practical grounds. Immigrant workers are vital for the continued sustainability of British agriculture and their lives are as intrinsically linked to the land as anyone born on this island.
You can’t stop people you fundamentally disagree with liking the same things as you but you can resist their attempts to pervert such things for their own shameful purposes.
If you wanted to you can have fun identifying the provenance of the various clips. There’s several from Winstanley (Kevin Brownlow, Andrew Mollow, 1975), Apaches (John Mackenzie, 1977) and some lovely shots from David Gladwell’s Requiem for a Village (1976) which will hopefully benefit from new viewers thanks to its exposure here. If you’re familiar with the BFI’s Centre Of Information DVD collections like Here’s A Health to the Barley Mow (2011) and MisinforMation (2010) you’ll recognise much. Ultimately however the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and the plethora of images and subjects threatens to overwhelm even as it elates the viewer.
The soundtrack is provided by Adrian Utley (Portishead) and Will Gregory (Goldfrapp) covering a wide range of styles from folk to industrial techno, helping to knit various textures together. This gives the viewer an appreciation of a common thread woven through all music, of community, expression and belonging.
The themes presented deal with class struggle, mass industrialisation and environmental catastrophe. What can be seen as terrifying folkloric traditions contrast sharply with wholesale destruction of communities and New Town development. Yet the style and pace of the delivery means it’s all broad brushstrokes, a sensory impression rather than a focussed polemic. And while the unsettling nature of a folk horror film pervades Arcadia Paul Wright is careful not to overemphasize that aspect, at least not in the most obvious way.
“There were other titles that we deliberately stayed away from as we knew that the film would have this folk horror feel throughout – the idea of the secrets of the land coming back etc – so we knew that certain films could have been used to emphasise that point more, but they were just too strong as folk horror imagery. Those films certainly influenced Arcadia, but I think it would have been too much to have them in the film itself. It was about trying to make it work on a visceral, emotive level rather than an intellectual one.”
Far better to let the images let you feel what you will rather than have Angel Blake or Lord Summerisle tell you when you should be frightened. Wright will occasionally slow footage and soundtrack to focus on a single folk element or primitive animation and show it out of context, the Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss is disturbing enough without it filling the cinema screen accompanied by low-frequency sounds.
Not all the images are disturbing in the same way, there’s twee eccentricity and moving sentimentality. The audience nervously laughs at news footage of a lady pampering her stuffed dog because she can’t accept its death, and then predictably squirms at naturists playing tennis. Most viewers are having a mirror put up to at least some aspect of their lives and at some level their beliefs via a visual and aural assault on the senses. How they react will say much about the type of character they themselves might play in a more traditional folk horror piece.
Although many of the same touches can be seen in Wright’s earlier For Those in Peril (2013) this is an unconventional follow-up. You’re left wanting more but as this timely work finishes with the cycle of rebirth and renewal you’re reminded that Arcadia is a film that pretty much demands repeat viewing.