Despite, or perhaps due to, the ever-present spectre of funding cuts and the commonly espoused notion that our national cinema’s global influence is on the wane, Britain is currently producing some exceptional filmmaking talent. Alongside the box office and awards success of the McQueens and the Nolans, our green and pleasant land is currently being examined by a fresh and artistically invigorating group of directors from Clio Barnard to Ben Wheatley. One such cause for excitement is Joanna Hogg, who has scaled new heights with her third feature, the fantastic Exhibition (2013). After two films chronicling the holidaying middle-classes, she now confines a strained relationship to a single abode.
Known for her sterling work with first-time actors (Tom Hiddleston included), Hogg here casts one-time The Slits guitarist Viv Albertine and Turner Prize-winner Liam Gillick as two affluent married artists – monikered ‘D’ and ‘H’ respectively – living in a modernist home in a leafy London suburb. Theirs is a strangely disconnected existence; their preferred communication method appears to be intercom, and time physically spent together feels taut at best. H has an arrogance that has come with success, whilst D is a performance artist who seems to be struggling with a loss of confidence. Tensions regarding D’s unwillingness to share her work-in-progress are clear, but the underlying issue that the couple are attempting to come to terms with is the imminent sale of their unique home of twenty years.
Location has always proved key to the relationship dynamics in Hogg’s oeuvre, and this is even more the case here, her chilliest but most quietly gripping film to date. Almost the entirety of Exhibition takes place within the house – designed by James Melvin – and it provides as much insight into the architecture of their marriage as they do. Hogg and cinematographer Ed Rutherford make the most of the stylish surroundings to not only embellish an otherwise spare visual aesthetic, but equally to foreground the background. Not merely a locale or a visual representation of its inhabitants – cold, artistic, and unusual – but most tellingly a surrogate child without whom the parents worry they may be unable to define themselves. Particularly troubled by this is D, who spends a lot of time slinking around the building, seeking inspiration, procrastinating, or “making the most of it” while she can.
Whilst being desperately unhappy in it, D is equally fearful of leaving, especially due to an unnamed event from their past – possibly a suicide attempt by H – that lingers in every nook and cranny. This creates a constant sense of unease that permeates everything and is brilliantly enhanced by any hints of rigidity in the unpolished performances. A brief, relaxed, cameo from regular collaborator Hiddleston as an estate agent only highlights the perfect casting of the central duo. This all sounds incredibly heavy, and while it is serious, Hogg also manages to insert some oddball humour and a little hopeful levity into proceedings. The fractures provide the absolutely riveting subject matter, but Exhibition shows the potential for healing and confirms its director’s place at the forefront of intriguing British filmmakers.