The Dig (2021, Netflix)
Featuring Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James, Ben Chaplin and Johnny Flynn. Screenplay by Moira Buffini. Based on ‘The Dig’ by John Preston. Directed by Simon Stone.
There is a certain formula to British historical dramas that make me a bit queasy. It may be the stuffiness of the characters, the faded tones, or the fond remembrance of a supposed noble past. Whatever the case may be, I often find them to be an ordeal. There are exceptions of course (I did enjoy The King’s Speech and The English Patient), and they do not always end up being that bad in the end. The Dig is not that bad, but I didn’t find it that good either. It is meant to be about the discovery of the Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon burial, but this is really just by-the-by in a larger, fictionalised romantic drama. It has high production values (with impressive cinematography) and by all accounts, has been quite popular since it was released on Netflix. It did not win any awards at the BAFTAs despite being nominated, and was overlooked completely for the Oscars. But it certainly felt like everyone involved was aiming for award season recognition. This must be kept in mind when decrying the lack of historical fact or accuracy on the subject matter, of which there is a whole lot.
The film begins with a dour archaeologist (played by Ralph Fiennes) cycling to the estate of a dour rich widow (played by Carey Mulligan) located on the River Deben estuary in Suffolk. He is offered the chance to excavate some curious earthen mounds on the estate, and thus ensues some archaeological magic…or so we would have hoped. Initially, the film explores the relationship between the archaeologist, Basil Brown, and the landowner, Edith Pretty, (and her son) with the amateur excavation providing an intriguing backdrop. As an archaeologist myself (admittedly, I knew very little about the background of Sutton Hoo), it would have been nice to see the film maintain more of a focus on the excavation rather than a descent into romanticised nonsense.
Fiennes and Mulligan are very capable actors but their characterisations of Brown and Pretty are excruciating at times. The knowing looks and broadening sexual tension harks back to Ted and Ralph in The Fast Show. In the end it goes nowhere, because Brown is married and well, the times (1930s) just wouldn’t have it. But also, a relationship between them never materialised in reality anyway. So, what to do instead? Introduce another fictional love story, of course. Lily James (playing actual archaeologist Peggy Piggott) and Johnny Flynn (playing Pretty’s younger cousin, who never existed) enter the picture almost half-way through. They certainly add some welcome sass to proceedings, but the archaeology then takes a further backseat as we watch the drama unfolding in Piggott’s life. I understand the many criticisms coming from archaeologists about the film, but I also echo the many film critics who found the piece underwhelming and unnecessarily conflated. It is still worth a watch if British romantic period dramas are your thing.
Reviewed by JJ McDermott – Rated 3/5
Ammonite (2020, Lionsgate)
Featuring Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan. Gemma Jones, James McArdle, Alec Secăreanu and Fiona Shaw. Written and directed by Francis Lee.
If a film establishes itself as a ‘fictionalised account’ of someone’s life, it is basically attempting to absolve itself from any surface criticism, which is fair enough. It is just a film after all. Ammonite concerns itself with the life of renowned British palaeontologist (‘fossil expert’) Mary Anning, played by Kate Winslet. Anning was an exceptional scientist from the early 19th Century, whose discoveries led to a change of thinking in the worldwide scientific community. Not a whole lot is known of her personal life, but Francis Lee (who wrote and directed the film) decided to embellish a few known facts about who she was and centre the entire biographical film around them. In defending his portrayal of Anning as a lesbian (which there is no evidence for), he argued that if we were to speculate that she was heterosexual, no one would have an issue with this. Fair enough.
However, that aside, the film does not stand up particularly well on other fronts. Winslet and Ronan are tremendous actors but there is a tendency here to become overbearing in their characterisations. This is contributed by a lack of chemistry in their alleged love affair, epitomised by their first, abrupt, and awkwardly acted, sexual encounter. There is an inconsistency to the direction too. Lee’s intention is clear – promote a feminist vision of an influential 19th Century woman who done things her own way. But there is a lack of realism at play. Winslet portrays Anning as a hardened, cynical woman who lives with her odd mother in a Dorset shop. Her seeming lack of joie de vivre is catapulted when she is unwillingly forced to look after a sick young woman (Ronan) who is left behind by her travelling husband. Indeed, as the relationship unfolds (and all the emotions that go with it) the red slowly comes back to her cheeks, and we are led down an inevitable path where disappointment looms.
The setting on a cold, foam-filled coastline is effective but the viewer never escapes a depressing feeling of being caged in a bleak, unforgiving place. Not only that, I found it all very boring. The characters are never that likable. Which is weird, because surely Anning deserves more celebration than this. I get that the times in which the film is set were not conducive to an idea of contemporary heroinism, but I think the film could have managed the idea of her achievements a little bit better. It seems to get bogged down in a weird, over-the-top exploration of homosexuality in Victorian England (again, despite any context available to elaborate this on) and neglects to focus on the fundamental matter of a woman passionately following her profession despite the systematic and societal hindrance against that during the time.
Reviewed by JJ McDermott – Rated 2.5/5