In May 1865, 163 Welsh men, women and children desperate to escape the poverty of their farms and coal fields sailed from Liverpool to Argentina, where they established a Welsh-speaking community in the barren landscape of Patagonia. The settlement is still there today, and is the starting point for the first of two parallel journeys undertaken in Marc Evans’ tedious romantic road movie Patagonia. Elderly Patagonian Cerys (Marta Lubos) tricks her young neighbour Alejandro (Nahuel Perez Biscayart) into accompanying her on a quest to find her grandparents old farm in Wales, whilst photographer Rhys (Matthew Gravelle) is initially delighted his girlfriend Gwen (Nia Roberts) is able to join him on a work trip to Patagonia.
The two stories don’t intersect narratively, and the only thematic link is an attempt to show both worlds through the eyes of outsiders. It’s not especially effective and they’re both tonally quite different with the more whimsical and twee ‘foreigners abroad’ Cerys segment the weaker of the two. Evans isn’t clear which of the two worlds is supposed to express the essence of Welshness unless it’s just anywhere there’s Welsh people, but girls passing out in Cardiff nightclubs are filmed with the same romantic gaze as the Patagonian plains.
Romantic entanglements are hard to make sense of, there’s a bizarre cameo from Duffy as both the girl who passes out in the club and the same one that later turns up to shag Alejandro on Cerys’ grandparents farm, she’s entrusted merely with verbal exclamations of what she’s supposed to be thinking (“I’m sad”. “It’s raining”.), it’s much needed dialogue that helps with deciphering her strange facial expressions…
The Patagonian-set segment is the more emotionally engaging of the two, but I found it’s Days of Heaven-lite pseudo-western yearnings and romanticism much harder to swallow. The couple’s relationship is set up at the start (in Wales and Buenos Aires) as passionate and cutesy, and I just didn’t buy the rapidity with which it breaks down once in Patagonia. Matthew Rhys is a very strange casting choice for a (albeit Welsh-descended) South American farmer, and Gwen’s affair with him came out of the blue. It’s a long film, but essentially two in one, and if the two hours had been spent just with Rhys and Gwen and their story, it may have had the space to build and disintegrate the relationships more believably.
The photography is exquisite however, and Robbie Ryan (Fish Tank, Scouting Book For Boys, Red Road) is fast becoming the best cinematographer working in the UK film industry.
The supposedly heartbreaking ending involving Duffy, a can of petrol and an ambiguously dead old lady had much of the audience sniggering, and after two long hours of Patagonia you may well want to visit the country but I doubt you’ll re-visit the film.
Patagonia – 2010 – United Kingdom – 118 mins – Dir : Marc Evans
Screening as part of the New British Cinema strand at the London Film Festival on Thursday 21st, Friday 22nd & Saturday 23rd October. Tickets available at www.bfi.org.uk/lff