Digging in the Dirt

The Dig

by Hope Madden

Indiana Jones made archeology look thrilling and dangerous. Director Simon Stone’s The Dig makes it look positively British.

Back in 1938, as England sat on the precipice of WWII, an informally trained excavator named Basil Brown unearthed an ancient Saxon ship in a mound around back of the widowed Edith Pretty’s land. Journalist/novelist John Preston’s aunt Margaret Piggott was part of the larger archeological crew at Sutton Hoo that would mine the site for its cultural riches. Many years later, Preston would mine that story for a novel.

Refined and marked by the proper restraint of the English, Moira Buffini’s adaptation of the source material remains keenly interested in the difference between what we unearth and what we leave buried. Stone’s film shadows two romances and the emotions they choose to excavate as well as those they do not.

Brown and Pretty are played by Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan, respectively. Fiennes finds a sweetly vulnerable center to Brown’s guarded stoicism. Meanwhile Mulligan reminds us again of her limitless range, playing essentially the opposite character of her bitingly brilliant Cassandra in Promising Young Woman.

Watching the gentle dance these two impressive talents engage in as their characters come to understand one another is hypnotic. There’s rarely an excuse to miss the opportunity to see either Mulligan or Fiennes act, and their delicate chemistry here is gorgeous.

Stone flavors his film and this relationship with notes of longing and melancholy that balance the overall theme of discovery. And then a sudden development—the arrival of Basil’s amiable and thoroughly loyal wife May (Monica Dolan, irresistible)—does more to sever their tale than complicate it.

This odd second act shift – just when we’ve really begun to invest in the primary relationship – turns Mulligan and Fiennes into supporting players in their own movie. Johnny Flynn and Lily James take it from here, he the attentive young RAF man in waiting and she the spunky archeologist/unsatisfied newlywed.

Both actors are solid, as is the entire and sizable ensemble of support, but the film feels out of sorts the moment the youngsters arrive.

It’s a lopsidedness The Dig never quite recovers from. Of course, had Mulligan and Fiennes not shone quite so brightly, it may not have been a problem at all.

M&A

Emma

by Cat McAlpine

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition…had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”

So begins Jane Austen’s final novel, and so too starts Emma., with text across the screen that almost seems to smirk. We find Emma as she is described: beautiful, put together, and just mischievous enough. She is also vain, childish, and compulsive in a way that mysteriously endears you to her. Anya Taylor-Joy (The VVitch, Thoroughbreds) delivers a masterful performance that is always on the verge of a laugh or a tear, depending on which way the day goes.

Well matched in chemistry and in his ability to show an astonishing depth beneath the veneer of decorum is Johnny Flynn as George Knightley. I have loved Flynn since Lovesick was titled Scrotal Recall (yes, really), and his performance in Emma. is earnest and authentic as always.

The character growth, across the cast but most importantly for Emma and Knightley, is masterfully done by both and makes this one of my most favorite period pieces. There are no nonsensical professions of love, you can see every spark light and burn – even in the slightest nods and prolonged bits of eye contact. Josh O’Connor so well telegraphs his nervous and misplaced intentions as Mr. Elton, that it’s even funnier that Emma is in the dark ’til the end.

Supporting the hilarious, heartfelt journey is a cast of wild and weird characters with impeccable timing, namely Bill Nighy as Mr. Woodhouse, Mia Goth as Harriet Smith, and Miranda Hart as the unfathomably lovable Miss Bates. In fact, it is the background of Emma.’s tapestry that makes the story so vibrant. So rarely do the wealthy find themselves truly alone, and director Autumn de Wilde capitalizes on the presence of society members and household staff alike—often out of focus but still on screen—to mine even more comedic opportunities.

In her first full length feature, de Wilde deftly uses the camera to double down on subtext and deepen the most important moments. Her use of camera emphasizes the screen as its own type of narration and honors the story’s origin as a novel. Eleanor Catton’s debut screenplay expertly weaves the multitude of characters and circumstances. Neither de Wilde nor Catton is afraid to slow down and strike a vignette, but the pacing is only occasionally labored, as the gorgeous cinematography and costume design alike provide plenty to gawk at.

Finally, I would be remiss to leave out the score, which has its own humor and cagey attitude to support the litany of other masterful elements. The entire production has a beautiful, rhythmic choreography to which all things, movement, people, and intentions, inevitably adhere.

I often both benefit and suffer from being sporadically read. As George Knightly muses, “Emma has been meaning to read more ever since she was twelve years old.” Me too, bud. I’ve never read Emma, or seen an adaptation, so I can’t tell you how well this holds up to the source material. Based on the reactions of the mostly middle-aged female audience in my showing, it holds up marvelously. Based on my own viewing, this is a charming, funny, and soon-to-be-classic viewing experience for anyone.

Captive

Beast

by Hope Madden

An outsider love story, a chilly whodunit, a psychological thriller—Beast is all and none of these.

This remarkably assured first feature from writer/director Mark Pearce keeps its focus on Moll (Jessie Buckley), the highly-scrutinized woman living with her parents in a small island community.

We open serenely enough on an angelic church choir rehearsing, a peace that’s harshly broken by the choir leader’s remark: I need more from you, Moll.

Geraldine James is haughty Hilary Huntington, the choirmaster; Moll is her grown daughter.

Soon a rugged stranger draws Moll out of her unhappy life, makes her feel awake and seen. She is destined to love this boy regardless of the string of missing girls in her village, regardless of his shady past, and in spite of the warnings of the smothering community.

Pearce’s skills keep you entranced, no matter the tropes he so easily picks up, throws off or reinvents. Sunlight, shadow, earth, sea—all these serve the visual storyteller’s purpose, while angles and frames keep you off kilter as you puzzle through the tale at hand.

You’re as invested, cautious and curious as Moll, but it’s actually Buckley’s performance—her depiction of Moll’s internal conflict—that is the most compelling and mysterious. As Moll changes demeanor, exploring her own identity becomes more important than determining her lover’s.

Johnny Flynn impresses as well as the local no-account presumed guilty, sharing a misfit chemistry with Moll that is both primal and tender. Tenderness is not what she’s used to from her severe mother, an epic James.

Together with the washed out colors of the characters’ bleak world, the film offers a harsh backdrop for Moll’s dizzying grasp on her own reality. The conflict, duality and self-discovery in Beast cannot help but draw you in, asking you about your own inner beast.

Without hitting a single false note, no matter the choir leader’s opinion, Buckley ushers us through a moral quagmire with a fire and authenticity that is gorgeous to behold.





Song Sung Blue

Song One

By George Wolf

Song One is a lot like the indie folk music that permeates it: pleasant, well-intentioned, and a bit bland.

Anne Hathaway stars as Franny, an anthropology student working overseas who must rush back home to New York after a family tragedy. Her brother Henry, an aspiring musician, is struck by a cab while walking in traffic, and Franny returns to find him in a coma, fighting for his life.

Searching Henry’s apartment for familiar items that might help revive him, Franny finds concert tickets to see a folkie named James Forester (Johnny Flynn). She attends the show, and waits in the autograph line to tell Forester about her brother’s admiration for him. The conversation sparks a sweet friendship, and James is soon visiting Henry and hanging out with Franny and her ex-hippie mom (Mary Steenburgen).

Will friendship turn to romance? Will James find inspiration to cure his songwriter’s block? Bet you can guess.

It’s the debut feature for writer/director Kate Barker-Froyland, and predictability is not what ultimately keeps Song One from resonating. Yes, the terrain is plenty familiar, but this love letter to the power of music suffers most from contrivance and precious few powerful moments.

Flynn’s performance is tender but tentative, and though is he obviously a talented musician, the original songs elicit little more than the nod you give that guy at a party who suddenly finds a guitar. He’s in way over his head alongside Hathaway, who dials it down but can’t keep her natural talent from casting a big shadow over her co star.

There is some promise here. The film is well shot and Barker-Froyland often seems to sense how thin the drama is, pumping it up with enough good intentions to keep any eye-rolling at bay. When her storytelling talent catches up with her technical skills, then she may have a hit on her hands.

 

Verdict-2-5-Stars