The Dig

Basil on the sofa, Mrs Pretty kneeling on the floor


The Dig re-imagines the events around a discovery so fabulous it needs no re-imagining – the excavation of the Sutton Hoo hoard. First unearthed in the 1930s, and originally thought to be Viking, the hoard turned out to be much older, Anglo Saxon, and eventually yielded up remarkable treasures made of gold, plus examples of everyday household objects that rewrote our understanding of the time, and perhaps most eye-catching of all, a 6th-century ship, buried in a mound as a funeral barque for its owner.

You don’t actually learn an awful lot about the actual treasures of Sutton Hoo in The Dig, though the skeletal frame of the part-excavated ship acts as a visual anchor, a reminder that the story is about more than the here and now.

Here and now, though, something very familiar is going on. A British drama fuelled by class division, in a Downton Abbey-esque setting.

With her voice at dowager pitch and with an accent so far back it’s a drawl, Carey Mulligan is at the social apex of this tale, playing Mrs Diana Pretty, the owner of a property on which sit several gigantic earth mounds. She and her husband bought the land expressly with a view to excavating them. But Mrs Pretty is now a widow and sick and so has brought in a local man to lead the dig. Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) may not have all the fancy certificates but he does know his stuff. And he’ll work for £2 a week!

Significantly, we have already met Basil, the true hero of this story, a self-taught fount of knowledge who tells Mrs Pretty that the mounds are Viking, possiby older. He’s up against it, though. Digging on his own (at first anyway) into soil likely to collapse back onto the digger, he also has to contend with various posh chaps from one museum or another trying to either take over his dig, have him fired, lure him away or demote him. Mrs Pretty will not hear of it, and maybe that’s as much because she doesn’t like to see her authority challenged as out of loyalty to Basil, we’re never quite sure.

There’s a couple in the 1990s British comedy series The Fast Show called Ted and Ralph, and the running gag is that the British inbred aristocrat Ralph – all PG Wodehouse and tweed – has an unrequited passion for one of his workers, horny handed outdoors-man Ted, but can never negotiate his way beyond the master-servant relationship, though god how he tries. There’s a touch of that in the back and forth between salt-of-the-earth Basil and lady-bountiful Mrs Pretty. But Basil is married, to practical, matronly May (Monica Dolan), while Mrs Pretty, wistful looks to one side, is simply too posh to ever lower her drawbridge to the likes of Basil, or is she? The spirit of Lady Chatterley’s Lover tiptoes through this film.


The Anglo Saxon ship emerges
The Anglo Saxon ship emerges



Moira Buffini’s adaptation of John Preston’s original novel sets up a whole string of these unrequited relationships – enter stage right Lily James as giddy bluestocking Peggy Piggott and her obviously gay husband Stuart (Ben Chaplin) as a pair of helpers on the dig. Enter stage left handsome and clearly available Rory (Johnny Flynn), the dressing-for-dinner nephew of Mrs Pretty.

The Dig isn’t overly interested in Anglo-Saxon boats and knick-knacks in other words, or not nearly as much as it’s interested in the human beings involved. This is what makes it a good film of an old-fashioned sort, one with dramatic structure, technical accomplishment and good acting.

What an achievement Ralph Fiennes’s Basil is. There’s the odd nano-vowel that escapes Fiennes’s East Anglia ooh-aaargh but more than the voice is his entire physical bearing – he looks like a 1930s yokel who both knows his place, because that’s how he was brought up, and is chippy enough to challenge the class structures, and strictures, of his time.

Director Simon Stone has an eye for a flat, wide Suffolk landscape and a fondness, with editor Jon Harris, for scenes where sonically we’re ahead (or behind) the visual action – “Your heart’s lost to this Viking maiden, I can tell,” says Mrs Brown to husband Basil at one point. She’s talking about the boat Basil has unearthed but the camera is lingering in the previous scene, where the blonde-haired Mrs Pretty is giving us her best Viking maiden.

Ten years ago Michael Fassbender would have been in this film, because he was in everything. Johnny Flynn is the Fassbender of our day – dependable, handsome, adaptable and able to suggest that real passion bubbles beneath the frosty upper layer of English decorum.

It’s tempting to see the hoard, the ship, everything excavated as a gigantic metaphor, for passions suppressed, passions unearthed. But passion of every sort – for sex, for love, for learning, for immortality even. There is more going on beneath the surface of The Dig than a quick scrape with trowel can reveal.





The Dig – Buy the original novel that inspired the film at Amazon



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© Steve Morrissey 2021




Promising Young Woman

Cassie in action

A #MeToo-fuelled drama produced by Margot Robbie’s LuckyChap company, starring Carey Mulligan and directed and written by Killing Eve’s Emerald Fennell. Promising Young Woman is full of promising young women but recently gained extra notoriety because a Variety review of the film apparently suggested that Carey Mulligan wasn’t quite hot enough to pull off the role of vengeful temptress luring drunk men to their fate.

That comment was actually about Mulligan’s performance rather than her looks. But the story now has grown its own legs. Either way, an attractive young woman who is not hot enough to tempt a heterosexual man wearing several pairs of beer goggles. Pause to think about that. And while thinking, remember that adage coined by the comic Lenny Bruce: “Men will fuck mud.” There is no “not hot enough” about it.

All that to one side – and it is a total sideshow – Mulligan plays the medical-school dropout now working at a coffee shop. We first meet her apparently bombed out of her skull in a bar. Three dudes break off their sexist banter when they notice her. One of them goes over to see if she’s OK, discovers she isn’t and then helps her get on her way… back to his place. It doesn’t quite go as the would-be privateer had hoped. At the moment when he’s trying to lower the panties of his drunken prey, Cassandra snaps out of her drunken fug, fixes him with a cold hard eye… and the action cuts away tantalisingly.

Being an Oxford University graduate, writer Emerald Fennell understands the implication of naming her heroine Cassandra – the figure in Greek mythology who speaks truth, no matter how unpalatable. The truth in Promising Young Woman is that men are generally assholes. Cassie is there to deliver the message.

More specifically she’s on a revenge jag, exacting payback from a specific group of assholes from her med school days, who got the authorities to collude with their bullshit fiction when a night of consensual/non-consensual (delete according to privilege) sex went wrong.

One possible exception to the men-assholes rule is Ryan (Bo Burnham), an old acquaintance of Cassie’s who strays into her coffee shop one day. Verbal jousting ensues, she spits in his coffee, and the meet-cute rules of Hollywood rom-com swing into play.

Cassie looking cute
Setting up the honey trap


At first Mulligan comes across like something out of one of those Charlize Theron movies where she’s not only physically super-capable but also has a weapons-grade mouth that can neutralise testosterone. As things progress, and Cassie starts to work her way towards the source of her friend Nina’s humiliation, more of Cassie’s character is revealed and she morphs from Charlize-in-waiting to a more tragic figure.

Structurally, this is Killing Eve – smart dialogue followed by an elaborate kill. Fennell the writer toys with us by playing peek-a-boo with genre conventions. Is this a rom-com? A thriller? A revenge drama? One of the achievements of this film is that it does genuinely blindside.

However, the need not to give the game away means Fennell struggles laying out a clear dramatic throughline. There wasn’t one in Killing Eve either, but that could fall back on the distractions of the extravagantly florid anti-heroine Villanelle – never mind what’s going on (or, more precisely, what’s not going on) over there, look over here, where I’m playing whackamole with human beings!

On the upside, there are a plenty of brittle, diamond-sharp scenes, which come in two different flavours – smart, funny stuff between Cassie and Ryan, smart and unpleasant stuff between Cassie and most of the other men in the movie.

This is the feature debut for Fennell the director. Her particular visual trick, not overused but powerful, is every now and again to suddenly switch from objective to subjective camera. When it happens it’s just for an instant and then it’s back to objective camera, but the effect is head-swivellingly re-orienting.

We never meet Nina, the actual victim of the asshole guys, just Cassie. And just when the sympathetic avenging angel routine starts to lose its glamour, Fennell hits us with two neat reveals – the first is shocker, the second incredibly satisfying – and Promising Young Woman concludes with a ta-daa that makes you wonder what this promising young woman will come up with next.

Promising Young Woman – Watch it/buy at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Inside Llewyn Davis

Oscar Isaac and cat in Inside Llewyn Davis

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

30 June

 

Dave Van Ronk born, 1936

On this day in 1936, one of the great nearly men of popular music was born, in Brooklyn, New York, USA, into a Catholic family who identified as Irish. Dave Van Ronk was singing in a barbershop quartet by the age of 13 but left school early to play music, hang around in Manhattan and, eventually, ship out with the Merchant Marine. He played jazz before straying upon blues, and built up a small following as one of the few white men working in the genre. And from there broadened out into folk. As the folk revival of the late 1950s gathered pace, Dave almost became part of a folk trio, which would have been called Peter, Dave and Mary. But the gig instead went to Noel Paul Stookey, and so Peter, Paul and Mary it was. Instead Dave wrote songs and sang in Greenwich Village; he became the figurehead of the scene, his syncopated finger-picking style and big bearish personality gaining him many admirers. Dave “was king of the street, he reigned supreme” as Bob Dylan later put it. However, in spite of 20 albums and five decades of performing, few people outside of the aficionados ever got to hear of Dave Van Ronk. This was partly because he wouldn’t fly, couldn’t drive, disliked leaving Greenwich Village. But it was also simple bad luck – he did a beautiful, crack-voiced version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”, which should have been a hit, except that Judy Collins beat him to it. And then, suddenly, the folk moment was over and the Tom Paxtons and Ralph McTells and Dave Van Ronks had to content themselves with driving on the back roads of success. Well at least he had talent, and did it his way.

 

 

 

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013, dir: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen)

The Coen brothers borrow the title of the 1964 album Inside Dave Van Ronk to tell the story of another nearly man, the fictional Llewyn Davis. Davis is not Van Ronk, and it’s pointless drawing comparisons between the two. Because Llewyn Davis is so clearly a Coen man. In other words, someone who’s doing what he thinks is his best but it isn’t really working for him. “Everything you touch turns to shit. Like King Midas’s idiot brother,” says Davis’s ex squeeze (Carey Mulligan, all over that Joan Baez look and attitude). We’re in Greenwich Village, early 1960s, folk music riding high, the clubs full of nice middle class kids in chunky sweaters, either on the stage or in the audience, while out in the wider world of music Llewyn Davis is trying to make a go of it.
The cat. We have to mention the cat, which Davis accidentally lets out of the apartment of the people he’s staying at, then chases down the road, then catches, then takes home to look after for a few days, because he can’t get back into the apartment now that the door has clicked shut behind him. And by “home” he means the couch of another long-suffering “friend”.

The strength of this film comes from its highly charged individual scenes – Davis abusing the hospitality of the Upper East Siders who have been bending over backwards to help the struggling artist; Davis being refused an advance by his ancient agent; on the road with a derisive heroin-addicted jazzman (John Goodman, nice); being told at the famous Gate of Horn club that he hasn’t got what it takes (and after singing his heart out too). And on it goes, heartbreak in instalments, to a lovely soundtrack, in venues that look lifted straight off the cover of Bob Dylan’s Freewheelin’ album.

The Coens have introduced us to Davis just as he’s obviously run out of time, credit at the goodwill bank of his various friends, couches to kip on. Something has to give. The songs Oscar Isaac tenderly sings are Dave Van Ronk’s. And they’re beautiful songs, though not quite “hooky” enough to make it. Davis isn’t “hooky” enough either, is chasing fame (or even just a living) the way he’s chasing the cat – elusive, indifferent – which actually turns out to be the wrong cat entirely.

As to whether the Coens are offering an explanation for Davis’s status as a nearly man, I’m not sure they are. There are suggestions that maybe Davis wants the prize for the wrong reason – money, rather than art – but only the vaguest hints. Instead the Coens seem intent on building a sustained mood piece in a minor key, highly polished, terribly sad. They are unusually fair to the music, make no snide digs at well brought up Americans singing in odd approximations of British folk accents, or of white kids who want to be black. And at the end, as Davis packs up his guitar having sung yet another night at the club he’s inhabited like a bad smell, and as he wanders outside into the back alley, the next act is announced. It’s Bob Dylan, we hear. But we don’t see. Success is not what Inside Llewyn Davis is about.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Oscar Isaac’s haunted performance
  • The music, including Dave Van Ronk’s songs
  • So many great performances – including Carey Mulligan, F Murray Abraham,
  • Bruno Delbonnel’s era-evoking cinematography

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Inside Llewyn Davis – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Bleak House

Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock in Bleak House

 

 

If the film is often a novella, the TV mini-series is often the full-fat 600-pager, with Charles Dickens right up at the top of the list when it comes to cliffhanger endings to the week’s proceedings – the stories were often written for serialisation, Bleak House having appeared in 20 weekly editions of 32 pages plus illustrations. The BBC have something of a lock on Dickens, but their productions can be a bit dusty, more focused on the clothes than the action. But not this Bleak House. This 2005 outing is their best Dickens since 1994’s Martin Chuzzlewit and has the edge on its previous Bleak House, made in 1985 and starring Diana Rigg and Denholm Elliott.

It is a brooding, majestic production, with depth and breadth at every level. The plot centres on the workings of the chancery court, and in particular the case of Jarndyce versus Jarndyce, a decision on which has dragged down through the decades. A generation before Kafka had worked up his own vision of byzantine and murky (in)justice there was Dickens before him, painting a picture of people held in stasis for their entire lives while a court decides who is to be the beneficiary of a will.

Casting is again the secret of this one’s success, with two central performances by an astonishing Gillian Anderson as the fragile Lady Dedlock and a majestically nasty Charles Dance as malicious lawyer Mr Tulkinghorn (though why use adjectives to describe his character when Dickens has done it with a name). Anna Maxwell Martin is its heroine, the plucky Esther, and she is as inspired piece of casting, as is Carey Mulligan, who had only made her professional acting debut the year before.

The cast list is rock solid all the way down but holds a few surprises, the names Liza Tarbuck, Johnny Vegas, Catherine Tate and Alistair McGowan being best known in the UK for being amiable light entertainers rather than actors. Well, they amiably play the comedy grotesque here in an adaptation full of larger than life characters, fuelled by a plot that’s reality run through a distorting lens, speaking lines (adapted by safe pair of hands Andrew Davies) that’s 50 per cent gothic exaggeration, 50 per cent stiletto – Dickens’s own upbringing had been ruined when his father was thrown into a debtors prison, so he had little affection for the workings of the legal system, which is the real villain of this piece.

On a different tack entirely, this was the BBC’s first drama series to be shot in hi-def, so its looks are stiletto-sharp too.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Bleak House – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

The Brooding Intensity of Michael Fassbender

Passion, power and emotional ferocity are all hallmarks of a
Michael Fassbender performance. But is he just a kitten in real life?


Here’s a funny thing. I’m in the audience at the New York Film Festival. On stage director Steve McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender are answering questions about the disturbing, brilliant film that’s just been shown. Shame, McQueen and Fassbender’s follow-up collaboration to the gruelling Hunger has Fassbender delivering a volcanic performance as a sex addict who’s either dialling rent-a-hooker, beating off at work or devouring porn at home. Intense, dark stuff.

Someone from the floor asks Fassbender a question about the relationship between the two damaged lead characters, a brother and sister (Fassbender and Carey Mulligan). Halfway through Fassbender’s measured, thoughtful reply, McQueen chips in with a helpful clarification. “Absolutely,”, says Fassbender. Pause. “Yes,” says Fassbender, turning to McQueen, his face darkening, his brows beetling. “Please don’t interrupt me again.”

For half a second the big room at the Lincoln Center takes a breath. And then Fassbender’s face dissolves.

The man who played the hunger striker Bobby Sands in Hunger, the brooding Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre, the lairy Connor in Fish Tank, is laughing. Laughing and doubling over, a tear springing to the corner of his eye. He’s pricked the slight pomposity of the event, just a bit, and he’s absolutely delighted.

“People think that I’m very intense,” Fassbender told CBC recently. “But I’m very silly really. I like to laugh and have fun.” There’s the word, and from his own mouth – intense. So why are we surprised that the characters Fassbender portrays and the man he claims to be are so very different? Actors are meant to fool with words and gestures, that’s their job. But there is something remarkable about Fassbender. Maybe it’s the way he can turn that intensity on and off, modulate it. Someone should tell Christian Bale.

The 33-year-old German-born, Irish-bred actor dropped out of London’s Drama Centre in 2000 – unhappy with its disregard for movies – and with what must be the luck of the half-Irish landed a part almost immediately on Band of Brothers, alongside Tom Hanks. Since then he’s turned up in more huge films than people would give him credit for – 300, Jonah Hex, Inglourious Basterds, X-Men: First Class – winning nominations and awards for all of them.

The chronology doesn’t tell the whole story though. With Band of Brothers Fassbender really thought he’d made it. In fact he followed up the TV ten-parter (he was in seven episodes) with a lean patch, working in bars, doing night shifts loading trucks, doing the odd Holby City on TV, turning up in a pop video, the sort of acting gigs most actors are familiar with.

Luck changed for the better, by an order of magnitude, when Steve McQueen cast him as Bobby Sands in Hunger in 2008. “I was 30 years old, recession was just around the corner… and for someone to take a chance on an unknown actor, you know. To take the risk…” his voice trails off. This is another genuinely lovely thing about Fassbender – he’s clearly ferociously committed to McQueen –”Apart from a big argument on the first day of Hunger, we just [he clicks his fingers]”.

Fassbender doesn’t feel strongly about the director because McQueen saved his acting bacon, he’s convinced of the director’s genius and of the importance of their bond. “My dream from the age of 17 was to have a relationship with a director. I was looking at Scorsese/De Niro, Lumet/Pacino. That would be the ultimate, to have a collaboration like that. To be on a wavelength that powerful with somebody. That was why I was so lucky to find in Steve with Hunger.” McQueen, incidentally, returns the evaluation: “Michael is a genius really. I want to work with the best actor there is. And I think he is, basically.”

Shame is Fassbender’s Mean Streets. In a just world it would win Oscars all round – even the tiniest roles in this film burn like phosphorous – but Oscar doesn’t go a bundle on masturbation, hookers, the suggestion of incest, all that jazz. A sex-addict who was also in a wheelchair, maybe…

“He [McQueen] mentioned to me in 2008 that this was an idea and I was ‘fine, just tell me when and where’. I didn’t even need to see a script. It was that simple.”

Would Fassbender have been put off if he had seen the script? Did he know how much full-frontal business there was going to be? Did he understand how damaged, deranged, desperate the lead character was?

And how do you set about playing that sort of part anyway, a questioner from the floor asks, reminding Fassbender of the shocking weight loss he went through to play Bobby Sands. “I just went out and had lots of sex, just tried to embrace it as best I could.” He’s laughing again, so is the entire room. Then, Serious Face. “Preparation? Just reading. I spent a lot of time with the script.”

Thoughts go immediately to Daniel Day-Lewis, how he refuses to step out of character during shooting. He could take a lesson in lightening up from Fassbender, one of his biggest fans.

So, a handsome devil, a bloody good actor and a fun guy who’s prepared to get butt naked in the name of his art, it’s no surprise that Fassbender is suddenly everywhere. Coming soon, he’s the lead in Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s first sci-fi film since Blade Runner. He plays psychiatry pioneer Carl Jung in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method. And he’s reteaming with McQueen for Twelve Years a Slave, with Chiwetel Ejiofor and some guy called Brad Pitt.

Michael Fassbender, you are so made.



© Steve Morrissey 2012