Visionary 'Arcadia' Is the Must-See British Documentary of the Year

The dreaming girl in 'Arcadia'
The dreaming girl in 'Arcadia' | Courtesy of the BFI
Photo of Graham Fuller
Film Editor18 June 2018

Visitors to the UK who want to understand its people’s relationship with the land should see the unsettling but illuminating Arcadia.

An archivally mined found-footage docu-fiction, Paul Wright’s Arcadia is a kaleidoscopic critical commentary on how swathes of the British countryside have been eroded by increasing urbanization, resulting in despair, alienation, and pockets of spiritual malaise.

It couldn’t be less like a conventional heritage film or a simplistic celebration of England’s (indeed, Britain’s) “green and pleasant land,” though nostalgic shots of idyllic rural vistas and unspoiled villages proliferate. It’s a movie that incorporates bucolic images of Edwardian children romping in newly mown hay, of boys tadpoling and playing cricket, with images of youths in the ’70s or ’80s sniffing glue.

May dancers in 'Arcadia' | Courtesy of the BFI

This reinforces the idea that Arcadia, made for the British Film Institute, is a new kind of polemical ‘folk horror’ movie, to name the genre encapsulating the likes of The Wicker Man (1973), Kill List (2011), and Wright’s For Those in Peril (2013), along with the innovative TV dramas Robin Redbreast (1970) and Penda’s Fen (1974).

Arcadia begins with the shadow of a man’s head creeping across a patch of mud. A male voice tells of a fair maiden who couldn’t fit into the world because a great darkness followed her: “She was told the answer to all her problems lay within the land around her.”

She is a teenage girl—from 1993’s Anchoress—photographed asleep and sometimes in a state of semi-wakefulness, who must somehow reconcile the British countryside’s idealized past with its dislocated present, and find the truth “in the soil.”

The film is divided into nine chapters, some of which are thematically stronger than others. The chapter ‘Folk’ has the most clips of village folk rituals. ‘Blood in the Soil’ deals with man’s cruelty to animals and other humans and all that implies in Darwinian terms: fox hunting and game shooting; zookeepers riding zebras and ostriches or boxing with a kangaroos; travelers being evicted from their campsite by police. ‘Utopia’ depicts the potentials of Arcadianism from a range of clashing perspectives; hippies smoking and dancing, and a girl extolling the effects of ecstasy are juxtaposed to footage of an upper-class woman praising the virtues of responsibility and denouncing people she considers layabouts.

Man at a rave | Courtesy of the BFI

Arcadia is simultaneously organized along seasonal lines—from spring to winter—that give a sense to the rhythmic flow of the agricultural year. The spring and summer sections are peppered with blithe quotes from documentaries: “For a thousand years these valleys have had a secret which no one else has shared;” “A secret past, a secret history;” “A land of great magic, a land of great mystery.”

Sincere though these sentiments were when they were originally expressed, the words “secret,” “magic,” and “mystery” now point to the sinister nature of certain folk rituals derived from pagan fertility rites and, in some cases, close to witchy practices. Pentagrams are painted on some of the decorative objects used in dances; one male dancer wears antlers; a sequence of shots of village men wearing bizarre hats and costumes invokes the occult.

And Arcadia is nothing if not sexual. As some of the lines mentioned above are spoken, a camera peers into a man-made cave in the hills. A nude maiden lies beside a brook, another girl dances in a diaphanous shift on a cliff’s edge. An early film about naturism is heavily quoted, and shots of female nudity appear throughout. Only one horror film sequence, showing a woman leading a naked man into the hills at night, feels exploitative. In this context, nudity symbolizes freedom—a shot of naturists running joyfully is placed next to a shot of 1920s office workers hurrying along the street.

Girl dancing on a cliff in 'Arcadia' | Courtesy of the BFI

Some of the silent footage of naked or half-naked women may have been gratuitous in its day, but it was filmed only a few decades after British-based Neoclassical artists—including Frederic Leighton, Edward Poynter, and Lawrence Alma-Tadema—had serenely celebrated Greek Arcadianism in their paintings. Two earthbound hippies among the female nudes in Wright’s film reiterate the connection between mating rituals and the fecundity of the land on which they are wildly dancing. Shots of maypoles also signify fertility, as does the image of the giant with the erect phallus carved in chalk at Cerne Abbas, Dorset.

As the girl dreamer stares into the carved face of a warrior or king, an old male voice comfortingly says, “To find her salvation, she had to understand the whole truth of this land.”

The truth isn’t pretty. Given the histories of feudalism, the enclosure movement, and mechanization, the notion of Arcadianism existing in Britain has been more mythical than plausible. It is in the chapter called ‘The Turning,’ when summer starts to drift away, that Wright begins to focus more intently on selfish agendas. Being a documentary about Britain, it was inevitable that the issues of class inequality and land ownership would be raised.

Dreaming of England in 'Arcadia' | Courtesy of the BFI

Wright quotes from Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s Winstanley (1975) to show how a 17th-century experiment in common ownership was violently suppressed. A male interviewee pompously explains why “socialist theories just don’t work,” and why “practical” British people favor “free enterprise.” There follow shots of a stately home, ‘private property’ signs, machines tearing up the countryside to make way for housing estates or motorways, a quarry that’s a huge eyesore in the landscape, and a rural rubbish tip. Images of a white-faced mime lamenting the destruction and dereliction feel a little arch.

Increasingly, there are scenes of suffering and impoverishment and, as the mood turns dystopian, the film builds to a pitch of collective existential pain. In red-tinted silent footage, a woman carries a bloody baby and, as children dance to ‘Ring a Ring o’ Roses,’ the specters of a plague and a nuclear catastrophe are summoned. “The end of everything” intones a voice.

But if Wright doesn’t finally ask “Will Jerusalem be builded here…?” he refuses to end on a pessimistic note. In the spirit of constant renewal, teeming microbes and flowering shoots, repeated from the opening, are meshed with shots of the dead bursting out of their graves from David Gladwell’s 1975 folk horror film Requiem for a Village. Hope for the English countryside lies, theoretically, in people re-establishing harmony with the land by staunching the tide of capitalism. But that is a tall order.

Wright’s film is infused with the spirit of hundreds of places, many recognizable: Stonehenge, the promontory near Padstow, Cooper’s Hill in Gloucestershire, and so on. Adrian Utley and Will Gregory’s score—by turns pastoral, ominous, Olympian, eldritch—and Michael Aaglund’s editing elide images of these spots with unidentifiable places of disturbance and decay.

Does that make Arcadia an anti-Arcadia, a film to repulse the visitor? On the contrary, the bromides spoken by those posh documentary narrators years ago still hold true: the English countryside retains its secrets and encourages exploration, but one must approach it gently.

Arcadia opens in the UK on June 21. Visit this site to see the schedule of openings, including pre-release dates.

Visit the BFI Player to see a free-to-view collection of many of the films featured in Arcadia.

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