Salting the Battlefield

Bill Nighy as Johnny Worricker

After the exotic holiday atmosphere of the second film, Turks & Caicos, The Worricker trilogy concludes with Salting the Battlefield. Writer/director David Hare takes us back, literally, to where we started gradually, starting the action out in Europe, where former agents and lovers Johnny Worricker (Bill Nighy) and Margot Tyrell (Helena Bonham Carter) are on the run, before swinging the focus back onto England, then London and finally the claustrophobic confines of the spying community and the upper echelons of the UK government.

Familiar faces return – a heavily pregnant Felicity Jones as Worricker’s permanently angry estranged daughter Juliette, Saskia Reeves as Anthea Catcheside, the deputy prime minister wondering if her hour might be coming, Judy Davis as coiffed and suited MI5 boss Jill Tankard, Ewen Bremner as former spook and now “useful” journalist Rollo Maverley and Ralph Fiennes as Alec Beasley, a prime minister so convinced he has right on his side in every situation that David Hare might as well have called him Tony Blair.

Not forgetting Rupert Graves as Stirling Rogers, the public face of the Foundation run on behalf of the prime minister, and designed to give Beasley a political afterlife. Rogers, though not much of a character in terms of drama, is the nub on which the whole plot turns.

And Worricker’s task is to prove it – that Rogers is just a face and that the real force behind a Foundation intimately bound up in the illegal extraordinary rendition and torture that took place post 9/11 is none other than the UK’s prime minister.

He’s hoping to do it not with an exposé, but by giving Rogers (and by extension the PM) enough rope – by dropping hinting stories into the newspapers – and watching to see if either man will fashion a noose with it. It’s the cover-up not the crime that catches people out, Worricker explains to ballsy Independent newspaper editor Belinda Kay (Olivia Williams) when he finally arrives back in the UK for showtime.

Cat and mouse is the initial mood – Worricker and Tyrell on the run in Europe, evading capture, moving from one safe house or hotel to the next, switching countries, always half a step ahead. But Hare has evidently been watching the US reboot of House of Cards, which debuted in 2013, and he’s borrowed some of that style for a series of one-on-one scenes heavy with silken-tongued interchange. Judy Davis and Saskia Reeves get one early on, in which the spy boss effectively tells the deputy PM to stick with her if she wants to get the top job… without ever quite saying that. Brilliantly written and acted.

Ralph Fiennes as the prime minister
Beware: politician!

So it comes as a bit of a jolt with one scene out on the street, Worricker’s furious daughter and her errant dad having a proper ding dong, that maybe things have actually been a bit too silken for much of the film. The individual one-on-one scenes have been utterly gripping, but the connective tissue joining them all together has been a bit weak. Call it a plot, call it drama.

What Hare does get just right is the way politicians see the “top job” these days, ever since Tony Blair, as a stepping stone on to greater things – a gig at the UN or a “rapporteur” role in some other supranational agency.

The joys of Salting the Battlefield are in all those one-on-one scenes. Near the end of the 90 minutes we get the heavyweight bout with Judy Davis and Bill Nighy facing off, the pair of them signalling madly with a billion subliminal tics that everything they say is doublespeak, the actors as comfortable in their roles as their characters are meant to be.

And so it ends as it began in Page Eight. Dragon slayed? Not quite. Hare is not that naive. But the good fight has at least been fought. And as Johnny Worricker lights up a cigarette and heads out into the night while jazz parps away on the soundtrack three films’ worth of old-fashioned spook stuff come to an end.

Incidentally, the newspaper involved in flushing out the PM, The Independent, ceased production as a print entity within 18 months of Salting the Battlefield airing. That’s entirely appropriate. This has largely been an exercise in end-of-an-era nostalgia, print journalism being as much a relic of a bygone era as Tinker Tailor spycraft.

Salting the Battlefield, the final instalment of the Worricker trilogy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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

Quiz Show

John Turturro, Hank Azaria and Ralph Fiennes in Quiz Show


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



10 September



The “Coughing” Major, 2001


On this day in 2001, Charles Ingram, a former major in the British army, won £1,000,000 in the UK TV gameshow Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. But before the payout could be made, accusations were already flying that he’d been tipped off as to the real answer to various questions by two plants in the audience – his wife, Diana, and a friend, Tecwen Whittock – who would cough when the right answer was read out. Ingram did not cough himself, nor was he any longer a major, but tabloid newspapers, preferring a story to the facts, dubbed him “the coughing major”. The case went to trial and lasted four weeks, at which point Ingram, his wife and Whittock were convicted of “procuring the execution of a valuable security by deception” (ie cheating). Whittock proclaims his innocence to this day.


Quiz Show (1994, dir: Robert Redford)

Robert Redford’s interest in the “unofficial” version of American history is very apparent in one of his best films, which picks apart one of the great scandals of the 1950s, when a nationally syndicated TV quiz show turned out not to be a contest to find the smartest but a set-up designed to keep the most attractive guy on TV – as defined by the ratings – until a more attractive one came along. John Turturro and Ralph Fiennes are the stars, Turturro the brusque Jew who’s been on a hot winning streak, Fiennes the refined Wasp chosen by the show’s sponsors to replace him, both lured into playing along with the deception that they were genuinely answering brain-bustingly difficult questions by the promise of fame, fortune, the usual. Quiz Show is unusual in coming right out and saying what has to be said – the network was NBC, the sponsor was Geritol, the show was 21, the host was Jack Barry and the two dupes were called Stempel (Turturro) and Van Doren (Fiennes). Names are not changed to protect the guilty. There’s a reminder of All the President’s Men in the late-night procedural business as lawyer Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow) starts burrowing to reveal what’s been going on. But does Quiz Show have a broader resonance? It’s a Redford film, so of course. To drag in the title of another Redford movie, it’s about “the way we were” – when probity in public affairs seemed to matter, when broadcasters were interested in more than the overnight figures, when the broader public believed in education for its own sake.



Why Watch?


  • The great cast includes Paul Scofield
  • Cameos from directors Martin Scorsese and Barry Levinson
  • One of Redford’s best – heart not worn too overtly on sleeve
  • John Turturro’s best ever performance?


© Steve Morrissey 2013



Quiz Show – at Amazon







Liv Tylerin Onegin



The world has grown wary of the costume drama since the heyday of Room with a View. To put bums of seats these days Stan Lee has to be involved at some level. Put a girl in a crinoline and a universal “meh” goes up. Even back in 1999 audiences weren’t flocking so readily. Which is a great pity because Onegin is an opulent delight. Directed by Martha Fiennes and featuring swathes of Fiennes siblings and in-laws in one capacity or another, it is worth a look because of its beautiful cinematography alone, and its obsessive attention to period detail. Most commendable of all, though, is its plot, based on a Pushkin poem, adapted intelligently by Peter Ettedgui and Michael Ignatieff, which is pursued right through to its logical, pitiless conclusion. There’s another Fiennes in the lead, Ralph, playing Onegin, a bored man about St Petersburg who inherits, moves to the country and starts playing boy-meets-girl with Tatyana (Liv Tyler). The couple never seem in danger of offering a credible threat to the permafrost but this barely matters, because the really big and worthwhile feature of this film is its exquisite languid pace. Never slow, incredibly magisterial, very rewarding. You simply won’t want it to stop.

© Steve Morrissey 2013


Onegin – at Amazon