FlixChatter Review: THE DIG (2021)

When I first saw the trailer for The Dig, I was immediately intrigued as I love historical drama, even if it I’m not familiar with the Sutton Hoo excavation of 1939 that shed light into the early Anglo-Saxon period. The film begins with archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes, sporting a Suffolk accent) visits the home of Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), who has been curious about what’s underneath eighteen ancient mounds on her Sutton Hoo estate. Though Brown is considered an amateur archeologist, he’s been working as a paid excavation employee for a provincial museum and has experience uncovering Roman remains.

It’s not clear how long the process took for Basil to discover that something really important has been buried under the ancient mounds for centuries, but it doesn’t seem to have taken him a long time. It’s remarkable given he’s only got two young guys helping him out. The discovery reminds me a bit of when archeologists found the skeletons of Richard III in 2012 under a Leicester parking lot of all places! Now I thought they’d make a film of that by now. Well, the the Plantagenet king’s reign in the late 1400s seems relatively modern compared to the 7th-century Anglo-Saxon ship burial, a period that lacks historical documentation.

Now, the story of excavation itself is pretty simple and perhaps would’ve been better served as a documentary. Filmmaker Simon Stone and screenwriter Moira Buffini based the film out of John Preston’s 2007 novel of the same name and focused on the characters affected by the dig, as much as the excavation project itself. If you’re expecting plenty of action scenes a la Indiana Jones however, well you won’t find much here. In fact, the film moves at an un-hurried yet assured pace.

Like many British period dramas, this film also deals with social class system as well as romance, though handled in a pretty subtle way here. Even though Brown was the one who made the discovery, the professional archaeologists promptly take over the project and he was practically cast aside. He almost quit entirely if it wasn’t for Edith’s young son Robert (Archie Barnes). Interestingly, the two main characters were also seemingly taken over by the new group of characters working on the dig: Charles Phillips (Ken Stott), husband + wife archeological team Stuart (Ben Chaplin) + Peggy (Lily James) and Edith’s cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn). I have to say it was quite distracting at first seeing Chaplin and James as a married couple, given they played father/daughter in Cinderella.

There’s not one but two tentative romance the film tread on. Though there are interesting societal themes being presented here, specifically in the relationship between Stuart and Peggy, it’s all a bit undercooked. I feel like the filmmakers aren’t as invested in them as they are in Edith and Basil’s story. As Edith’s health quickly deteriorates, I can’t help but wishing she’d get a last chance at happiness after being a widow for so long. But ultimately, it’s the blooming friendship and affecting mother-son relationship that brings a sense of joy and hope. Both Fiennes and Mulligan are two of the finest actors working today and they convincingly embody the characters they’re playing. It’s a restrained but effective performance depicting the slow-burn nature of their relationship. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the usually buttoned-up Fiennes so muddy and disheveled, but he’s one of those actors who can disappear into any roles. Young newcomer Archie Barnes is wonderful to watch and provides some of the most emotional scenes of the film.

One thing I noticed about the film’s editor deliberately separates the dialog from the scenes of actors conversing with one another. At first it seemed like an odd technique but it actually adds unexpected dynamic to an otherwise ordinary, even tedious scenes. The filmmaker’s authentic depiction the Suffolk climate and the damp pastoral landscape of the excavation pretty well. It’s as if you can feel the mud, dirt and even smell the sodden grass, which really transport you to that time. The expansive cinematography by Mike Eley showcases the English pastoral countryside beautifully.

Now, one criticism I have is that despite the dig being regarded as one of the most important archaeological discoveries of all time, the film lacks a real genuine suspense nor even excitement overall. There’s also not a strong payoff in the end, other than the text explaining what’s become of the discovery and the people involved. Now, I personally enjoy gentle, slow-paced period pieces, those that some might call ‘painfully polite’ dramas, but I think some might find this movie a bit dull. For those who have the patience, I think there are quite a few gems to appreciate here, and the fascinating historical significance also compels me to read more about Sutton Hoo excavation.

Have you seen THE DIG? Well, what did you think?

Netflix FIRST LOOK: The Dig + Lupin (French series) – coming in January

We have twenty four days left in December and yet I’m already looking to January. Yes I know we still have a few things to look forward to in December, namely Wonder Woman and The Midnight Sky (directed by & starring George Clooney), but seeing these two trailer this past week got me excited to jump to what’s normally considered the dump season for movie releases.

THE DIG

It’s been a while since I saw Carey Mulligan in anything, and she’ll have two movies back to back. Her revenge thriller Promising Young Woman is going to be released in theaters on Christmas Day, and this historical drama will be released on Netflix on January 29, 2021.

As WWII looms, a wealthy widow (Carey Mulligan) hires an amateur archaeologist (Ralph Fiennes) to excavate the burial mounds on her estate. When they make a historic discovery, the echoes of Britain’s past resonate in the face of its uncertain future‎.

Per IMDb, THE DIG reimagines the events of the 1939 excavation of Sutton Hoo near Woodbridge, in Suffolk, England. It is the site of two early medieval cemeteries that date from the 6th to 7th centuries. One cemetery had an undisturbed ship burial with a wealth of Anglo-Saxon artifacts. Most of these objects are now held by the British Museum.

I LOVE the cast and those who know me knows this is SO my kind of movie. I love movies set in Britain and the fact that it’s based on a true story makes it even more intriguing. I’m not familiar with the director Simon Stone‘s work, but I have enjoyed the screenwriter Moira Buffini‘s work (Byzantium, Jane Eyre, Viceroy’s House). The pairing of Mulligan and Fiennes is a huge appeal for me, both are such terrific actors. Originally Nicole Kidman was going to play Edith Pretty, the woman on whose land they discovered the ship burial, but I’m glad Mulligan was cast instead. Lily James (who seems to be in a lot of Netflix movies lately), plus the suddenly-everywhere Johnny Flynn are in this.


LUPIN

I love a fun heist flick and this one is a contemporary retelling of the classic French story about Arsène Lupin, a gentleman thief and master of disguise.

TV series based on the early 20th century French detective novels by Maurice Leblanc about a gentleman thief named Arsene Lupin.

 

I love Omar Sy in The Intouchables, glad to see him in a leading role in what promises to be a lot of fun action set in the City of Light. Here he plays Assane Diop which is inspired by the fictitious gentleman thief Arsène Lupin created in 1905 by French writer Maurice Leblanc. He’s looking pretty cool and suave, like a French Idris Elba–mais oui! The first trailer I saw was a dubbed version and I’m REALLY hoping Netflix would air the original French version with subtitles (we can read Netflix, come on!!) There’s nothing more annoying than watching dubbed movies/series, I mean, you lost a lot of the language nuances of the original.

In any case, the show’s creator is George Kay, who’s written for a bunch of terrific UK shows such as The Hour, The Tunnel, Killing Eve, Criminal, etc. The character itself is popular in Japanese Manga called Arsène Lupin III which is the grandson of Leblanc’s fictitious creation.

The rest of the French cast include Hervé PierreNicole GarciaClotilde HesmeLudivine SagnierAntoine GouyShirine Boutella and Soufiane Guerrab. The director of the first episode is Louis Leterrier, which some cinephiles might remember for directing The Transporter and The Incredible Hulk.

Given the lockdown is likely to continue indefinitely until we get those Covid vaccines that prevent us from traveling the world, I’m going to live vicariously through movies/series set in European cities. I know I’ll be craving to go to Paris even more after watching this one.

LUPIN will premiere on January 8 on Netflix.


Can’t wait for these two! What about you?

FlixChatter review: EMMA. (2020)

Jane Austen never dies… from theater adaptations, TV shows to feature films, the demand for Austen-related content remains strong. I am perfectly ok with that. I don’t count myself an Austen purist, so I welcome new interpretations/visions, even crazy mashup like Pride & Prejudice & Zombies can be highly enjoyable (hello Colonel Darcy! 😍)

This new Austen adaptation has already broken grammatical rules with adding a period at the end of the title, and it immediately looks visually-distinctive from the moment the film opens. The setting and production design is very much Georgian–Regency England, but yet it feels decidedly modern. Set in a lush country village of Highbury where our protagonist Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) has lived all her 21 years in comfort, the mood is appropriately frothy. What does a young woman living a relatively practically stress-free life to do? One must stir up “troubles” of course… and Emma happens to have a knack for matchmaking, or so she thought.

Anya Taylor-Joy with Bill Nighy

The object of her matchmaking is Harriet Smith (Mia Goth). After she influenced Harriet to refuse the hand of a young farmer, Robert Martin (Connor Swindells), Emma’s set to match up her friend with an ambitious local vicar Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor), against the wishes of her close friend Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn). Let’s just say Mr. Knightley’s instincts proves correct… things do not go according to plan. That’s all to be expected in Austen’s comedy of errors. Emma is filled with fun characters, and though not all the casting work to my liking, for the most part the ensemble is quite agreeable.

Mia Goth as Harriet

Let’s start with what I enjoy most about this adaptation… I’ve mentioned the visuals, which is definitely a strong point. Director Autumn de Wilde is a commercial photographer and music video director by trade, and here she works with DP Christopher Blauvelt to create a visually rich and strikingly beautiful. The opulent world the Woodhouse’s and Knightley’s estates are appropriately opulent and lavish, with meticulous attention to details to their costumes, carriages, interior design, etc. The lovely music by Isobel Waller-Bridge keeps the mood constantly upbeat.

Anya Taylor-Joy with Callum Turner

Anya Taylor-Joy is delightful as Emma (I actually like her more than Gwyneth Paltrow in the 1996 version). At times she feels a bit more modern in the way she behaves, but that could be because of de Wilde’s direction overall. Bill Nighy is always fun to watch and he’s quite hilarious as Emma’s obsessively-concerned-for-his-health father. I also adore Josh O’Connor as Mr. Elton and he’s such a great comic relief (at least in the beginning) and not quite as creepy as Alan Cumming was in the ’96 version that made my skin crawl. Now, perhaps I like him too much as I’m supposed to abhor Mr. Elton, but it’s so fun to watch him in such a different role from the more brooding Prince Charles in Netflix’s The Crown season 3.

Josh O’Connor as Mr. Elton

I think de Wilde’s direction definitely injects something fresh to this popular adaptation that it felt like I was watching this Austen story unfold for the first time. When I left the theater, a patron mentioned that this film feels a bit too ‘sitcom-y’ and I can see his point. I read in an interview that de Wilde, who grew up in New York, actually wanted to ‘…bring American screwball comedy as a style into the making of the film,’ The story itself is a bit of a situational comedy when you think about it, so the light & frothy tone is appropriate. The nimble pacing is definitely a plus as the film does not overstay its welcome, and there are definitely plenty of gorgeous visuals to distract us during the slower parts.

Johnny Flynn as Mr. Knightley

Now, there are things I’m not too fond of about this adaptation… one of them is Johnny Flynn‘s casting as Mr. Knightley. He just looks too much of a rock star (apparently Flynn is a rock star), complete with his blond bedhead hairstyle that is so ill-suited for that era where the upper-class is supposed to look so buttoned-up. Despite a nice chemistry between him and Taylor-Joy (particularly in the exquisite dance sequence), this Mr. Knightley doesn’t make me swoon the way oh-so-dashing Jeremy Northam did in the 1996 version. Oh, and what’s with the brief nude scene as Knightley’s about to get dressed. Is it supposed to rival Mr. Darcy’s wet-shirt scene?? I don’t know, but I just think it’s kind of silly and unnecessary. Now, I’m not a prude and the scene is not exactly sexual (he was being dressed by his servant), but it was distracting and took me out of the story a bit. I also have an issue with the nudity in 1999’s Mansfield Park, an odd choice in an otherwise wonderful adaptation.

Another meh casting is Callum Turner as Frank Churchill who comes across as extremely pompous. Yes he’s supposed to be immature and self-absorbed but Turner turns up the snobbery so much it’s utterly irritating. Fortunately he’s a minor character, he’s not on screen so much as to ruin the entire experience for me. There’s also a scene towards the end that leaves me scratching my head. I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s also another moment that took me out of the movie. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be a comedic scene but it comes out really peculiar and not particularly romantic.

The social class commentary is an essential aspect in the novel, and I think de Wilde is able to capture that here. The moment Emma flippantly insults Miss Bates during a picnic which she then gets scolded by Mr. Knightley is a good example. The boarding school girls, including Harriet, hold Emma in such a high regard, following her around in awe the way fans would to a celebrity, shows the gap between the haves and the have-nots. The despicable snobbery of Mr. Elton and his wife (Tanya Reynolds), and their poor treatment of Harriet further exemplifies this theme. The setting, costumes, etc. also do a great job informing us of different social structure.

Overall, I enjoyed this adaptation, but Emma always feels a bit too frivolous for me. Even with the social commentary that Austen is known for, the story doesn’t carry the kind of pathos the other novels have that are so emotionally-moving. Plus, the character herself is tough to relate to… after all, Emma is someone who’s handsome, clever and rich, nothing has vexed her in her 21 years of living comfortably and without rival. I lost my mother at 16 so I identified with two of Austen’s protagonists who lost their mother at a young age. But unlike Persuasion‘s Anne Elliot did, it’s never mentioned that her mother’s loss hit Emma particularly hard. I do appreciate that the character does grow up in the end, so the transformation is there. Just because her journey to ‘happy ever after’ is perhaps not nearly as poignant as other Austen heroines, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t earned.


Have you seen EMMA.? Well, what did YOU think?