Monica Dolan

The Dig

30/01/21

Netflix

The Dig sounds fairly unpromising on paper. It’s based around the excavation of the Sutton Hoo horde – one of the most significant discoveries in British archeological history – and, since we know the eventual outcome of the tale before a single sod of earth has been lifted, it’s all too easy to surmise that this will be a story bereft of any suspense. However, as written by Moira Buffini (based on a novel by John Preston), and directed by Simon Stone, this is nonetheless a compelling story that never fails to hold the attention and, in one particular sequence, will have you holding your breath and crossing your fingers.

It’s 1939 and Great Britain is hurtling irrevocably towards World War 2. Suffolk landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) has long wanted to explore three ancient burial mounds in one of her fields and, to this end, she decides to hire local man, Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes). Brown has years of practical experience in excavation, but not much in the way of qualifications. However, once the little matter of payment has been finalised, he sets to with gusto.

When the excavation begins to yield some promising results, the glowering, overbearing Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) is dispatched by the British Museum to stake their claim on the gradually emerging treasures. Soon, more hands are called to help out with the donkey work. These include Peggy Piggot (Lily James), recently betrothed to Stuart (Ben Chaplin), who, it turns out, isn’t ideal husband material – and Edith’s cousin, Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn), fills in some time while waiting to take up his commission with the RAF. The various characters make up a volatile mixture, and there is an added shot of tragedy when Edith discovers that time is running out in more ways than one…

This is a handsomely-mounted production – the English countryside, thanks to cinematographer Mike Eley, has rarely looked more sumptuous – and Mulligan and Fiennes make a memorable on-screen partnership, she playing her vulnerability for all its worth, and he portraying the kind of stoic, no-nonsense personality that seems to go hand-in-hand with the era. There’s no actual romance between them – Brown is married to the equally steadfast May (Monica Dolan) – yet Pretty and Brown eventually establish a relationship based on mutual respect. Brown does forge a friendship with Edith’s young son, Robert (Archie Baines), built around a mutual interest in star gazing, and the scenes where he counsels the troubled boy are beautifully handled.

Those looking for something to transcend the current glum realities of life, could do a lot worse than clicking the Netflix button, but be warned, there’s a poignant conclusion here that may have some of you reaching for the tissues.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Days of the Bagnold Summer

20/08/20

Curzon Home Cinema

Based on a graphic novel and directed by Simon Bird, best known for playing Will McKenzie in The Inbetweeners, the curiously titled Days of the Bagnold Summer is a gentle, quirky little film that really doesn’t fit comfortably into any particular genre. It’s not exactly a comedy, though it generates plenty of smiles and there’s very little in the way of action or suspense. One quality it has in abundance, however, is charm. 

It focuses on the relationship between shy librarian Sue Bagnold (Monica Dolan) and her teenage son, Daniel (Earl Cave), a morose, heavy metal obsessed goth, who has never really forgiven his mother for breaking up with his father, even though it happened years ago. When a planned trip to Florida to spend time with his dad and his stepmum fails to materialise, Daniel doesn’t hold back in complaining about the prospect of spending the summer with the woman he considers to be the most boring person on the planet. 

Meanwhile, Sue attempts to form a meaningful relationship with amorous college lecturer, Douglas (Rob Brydon); she spends time with her more outgoing sister, Carol (Alice Lowe); and ends up confessing her troubles to smug, new age therapist, Astrid (Tamsin Greig). Daniel, aided and abetted by his only friend, Ky (Elliot Speller-Gillott), tries to find a summer job and entertains ideas of becoming the front man for a local band…

If this all sounds a little underwhelming, it’s important to add that the appeal of Days of the Bagnold Summer lies in its ambling, good natured approach to its chosen subject. Both Dolan and Cave submit note-perfect performances in the lead roles: you believe in their characters absolutely and neither of them is ever allowed to become a caricature. There are no great dramatic revelations here. This is a story about a mother and son learning how to rub along with each other and their eventual bonding over the imminent demise of a family pet is nicely handled.

All in all, this is a delightful first feature for Bird and it will be interesting to see where he goes next.

4.1 stars

Philip Caveney