AT A TIME when The King's Speech is basking in Oscar glory and low -budget social realist films such as Neds, The Arbor and Another Year continue to earn critical kudos at home and abroad, British filmmaking would appear to be in rude health.
Look a little closer, though, and the films gaining most of the serious attention tend to fall into the same depressingly familiar categories. Broadly, there are costume dramas and there are films set on council estates, with very little in between. Which may be why Joanna Hogg seems like such a unique new voice in British cinema. She emerged as a fully formed film-maker three years ago with Unrelated, and Hogg's new drama Archipelago confirms her as a rare talent, someone able to make films that are authentically British yet unlike anything else currently out there.
That's partly down to her directorial style, which is very precise and pared down (while simultaneously being very naturalistic and spontaneous), and partly it's to do with the fact that she's making serious, emotionally complex films about people who don't normally feature in contemporary British dramas. Unrelated, for instance, revolved around a childless fortysomething woman whose awkward presence on a friend's family holiday in Tuscany gradually leads to heartbreaking revelations about her own relationship. Archipelago, meanwhile, explores the suppressed tensions of an upper-middle class family giving their eldest son Edward (rising star Tom Hiddleston) a send-off while on a stressful holiday in the Scilly Isles.
Though neither film sounds particularly riveting plot-wise, both prove hypnotic in the way they capture and present recognisable human behaviour, with Hogg taking care to avoid all the cosy clichs and grotesque caricatures that are usually associated with middle-class life whenever it is put on screen. Not that Hogg sees herself as a chronicler of any kind of British bourgeois anxiety.
"I'm just interested in authenticity and I'm choosing this milieu because it inspires me and I understand it," she says. "I'm not interested in depicting a certain class; I don't see it from that outside viewpoint."
Strangely, though, some people seem intent on actively resisting her work for this very reason, as if somehow the characters in her films don't deserve to have an interior life because of where they were born. At the post-screening Q&A for Archipelago's London Film Festival premiere, for instance, one audience member asked her accusingly if she was only ever going to make films about middle-class people. Hogg graciously made light of the intended insult, but the question clearly frustrated her, so much so that when we meet the following day, she is feeling a little critical of her own slightly apologetic response.
"It's something that comes up a lot and I'm continually thinking about what I think about that idea," she says. "I've thought about it since last night, actually, and I feel very strongly that I'm not making any judgments about these people. It is about authenticity. It seems interesting that the question is being asked."I suggest that one reason might be that a certain conditioning seems to have taken place in low-budget British film-making. Many directors appear to favour the Ken Loach/Mike Leigh approach, not because they're from that world, but because of a misplaced belief that stories about socially disenfranchised people are automatically more worthy of cinema, regardless of whether the specific stories are dramatically compelling. "I don't know," says Hogg. "That's maybe a little derogatory. But I do think if we were sitting in France and I was a French film-maker, the question wouldn't even come up."
There's certainly something very European about her work. The late Eric Rohmer is a frequent reference point, and while Hogg is too modest to accept the compliment, like Rohmer she does have a tendency to let her characters' emotional journeys drive the story. She also favours understatement where British film-makers tend to be a bit more polemical. "I like to have space in films for other people to interpret the story as they want to," she says. "I don't like to dictate too much; it's also why I don't use music because that often dictates how you should feel and I like to be quite non-judgmental and not too prescriptive."
If it seems as if Hogg has come out of nowhere, nothing could be further from the truth. Her journey has been a long and circuitous one, beginning in the early 1980s, when she worked as a photographer's assistant (earning 30 a week) before launching a career as a photographer herself. This sparked an interest in film-making, one fuelled by the vibrancy of the post-punk scene in London. She met Derek Jarman during this period and the British maverick became a mentor of sorts, lending her a camera encouraging her to make films of her own.
"Photography I found limiting to an extent because I wanted to tell stories, so I started making Super 8 films," she says, "then I went to film school and started making pop videos, and that led me into television drama."
She served her apprenticeship on long-running BBC soaps such as Casualty and EastEnders. "I felt I needed to get experience in drama, but I did get a little bit stuck in television." One reason was she liked the steady work, but she'd also lost some confidence in her film-making abilities at the National Film and Television school when her graduation film, starring the then-unknown Tilda Swinton, was deemed too frivolous.
"There were a few wrong turns at film school and I got a bit discouraged and lost a little bit of ambition." Entering her mid-forties a few years ago, though, was the push she needed to finally try a film.
The result, Unrelated, was made for less than 500,000 and came together so easily it made her wonder why she hadn't done it before. "But I decided not to have regrets about it," she says. "Now I feel like I'm not going to veer from this path I've found, so hopefully I'll be able to build a body of work."
• Archipelago is in cinemas from 4 March