‘Downton Abbey: A New Era’ offers an enjoyable ride

The trailer for this second Downton movie may give one the impression of entering a patisserie filled with colourful macaroons with its delicious decor and the pastel colour of a French villa in the Riviera, with matching costume too. In that short clip, the stylish zeitgiest of the Jazz Age could spark one’s imagination of Gatsby-esque frivolity. I’m glad to find these notions misleading, for the movie is not a gratuitous show of glamour or a fancy facade.

Reprising the success of the original TV series, Julian Fellowes focuses on the characters and their stories; the setting is exactly as it is, a beautiful backdrop, which is always a plus. All the details of story development are the very essence of the movie, tiny bits of delicious morsels for fans of Downton to savour. Indeed, I’m afraid this is a movie for those who are familiar with the characters as Fellowes continues with their life at Downton, the twists and turns. Clever dialogues and funny scenes, all gratifying to watch.

Downton Abbey: A New Era reminds me why the original TV series back in 2011 could sustain six seasons and a feature movie three years after it wrapped, and now three years further, another one. Why, it’s all about the characters and their stories. We want to follow them and find out what’s going on in their lives as time goes by and how they would act given different scenarios… and in this newest offering, see them grow old in real time. Not just for the adults, the kids too; George and Sybbie are the same child actors now much taller.

In A New Era directed by Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn, 2011), two storylines intertwine seamlessly. First off, the Dowager Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) once had a short but juicy liaison d’amour in the south of France when she was young. Now decades later she learns that she has inherited a villa in the French Riviera as her one time beau had apparently took the love affair much more seriously than she did. Now she in turn bequeaths the property to Sybbie, Tom Branson’s (Allen Leech) daughter, a most kind and generous act. So, some of the Crawleys are going there to check it out and face up to a disgruntled widow.

Staying behind is Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) who has now taken over the helm of the property management at Downton. The year is 1928 heading towards 1929, while they can’t foresee the coming economic woes, Mary can see the leaky roof of Downton badly needing repairs. Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) has never been up in the attic for years, but now looking at the buckets catching the dripping water, he agrees reluctantly to allow a film crew to shoot on location at Downton, all for the financial benefits that comes with it.

Both storylines are interesting subjects. While the expedition to the French villa is gorgeous visually—attracting an Architectural Digest article on the property––the filmmaking at Downton is no simple matter. At that time, silent movies are coming to the end replacing by the talkies. Fellowes has written not just an interesting scenario but informed viewers of the complexity of movie making at that time. No spoilers here, but the servants from downstairs have contributed effectively to this movie within a movie.

The storytelling is clear and enjoyable, kudos to some smooth editing and aptly paced scenes, some take longer to draw out the underlying significance of the dialogues, some faster just to pinpoint without dragging.

The smart opening is a succinct re-introducing of all the characters in one setting, at the church wedding of Tom and Lucy (Tuppence Middleton). Just about everyone is there. The camera follows the newlyweds as they walk down the aisle, greeted by all the Downton characters and related figures. Absent are Henry Talbot, who’s somewhere else in the world, ominous future for Mary. How I miss Matthew. And no mention of Rose.

New faces are the filmmakers at Downton, Hugh Dancy as director Jack Barber, Laura Haddock as the rude and insecure silent film star Myrna Dalgleish, and Dominic West (Prince Charles in The Crown S5) as co-star Guy Dexter. Three Downton figures play an important role in this segment, Mary, Molesley (Kevin Doyle), and surprisingly, Daisy (Sophie McShera).

Listening to the Downton theme music in the dark theatre––my first post-Covid movie viewing outside the home––via its state of the art sound system is a heart-stirring experience. What a difference it makes watching Highclere Castle on the big screen and hearing the theme music emerge. A New Era is a better movie than the first one three years ago. A must-see for Downton fans, and a fantastic prompt for those who have never watched the TV series… never too late to get on the ride.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Book to Screen Bingeables

The word is in the OED, could well have gained relevance during the pandemic. Currently, two 2022 Netflix series can be described as such, bingeable. Both are adaptations from books in the genre of crime and courtroom drama. One major factor that makes them watchable is that both are created by David E. Kelly. A legal series associated with Kelly is likely to be of quality. His filmography too long to list.

THE LINCOLN LAWYER

Maggie and Mickey in the Netflix series The Lincoln Lawyer

Based on Michael Connelly’s The Brass Verdict (2008), the second book in his Mickey Haller series. The successful LA criminal defence attorney works mostly in his chauffeur-driven Lincoln Town Car, hence the namesake of the title. Unlike the book and Matthew McConaughey’s portrayal in the 2011 movie adaptation, Mickey here in the Netflix TV series (S1, 10 episodes) is more vulnerable, less self-assured, yet unrelenting in seeking the truth, and above all else, possessing genuine care for his daughter and ex-wives; in other words, a better man.

Other than the writing, a major asset is the cast. No big name A-listers, but the roles are aptly filled: Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as Mickey, Neve Campbell as ex Maggie the prosecutor, Krista Warner as their teenage daughter Hayley; and at the office, yes there’s an office other than the back of the Lincoln, Becki Newton as Lorna, another ex, Angus Sampson as Cisco. Jazz Raycole as driver Izzy whom Mickey offers the job after defending her in court. Must mention is Christopher Gorham (Auggie Anderson back in Covert Affairs 2010-14) as the high profile client Trevor Elliot accused of the double murder of wife and her lover.

The 10 episodes flow well with several storylines going at the same time, adding interest and complexity. And as author Connelly has generously sprinkled in his books, the human side of his characters is the driving force behind the stories and conflicts. Mickey needs to come back from rehab, having developed drug dependency for pain relief after a surfing accident, on top of that, to gain back the trust and love from his ex-wife and in sharing the responsibility of parenthood… and wishful thinking it might seem, pursuing a second chance in a failed marriage.

Career wise, the high-profile case of defending video game developer Trevor Elliot could catapult him back on the track of success after his hiatus. What’s intriguing is that we see Mickey and Trevor often in a cat and mouse game. Newly handed down by a judge this case as the previous defence lawyer was gun down just days before the trial, and with not much to go on, Mickey has to rely on instinct, logical thinking, gut, as well as Lorna and Cisco’s unconventional investigative techniques.

The adaptation has an updated storyline that’s different from the 2008 book, but Connelly’s mark is there, as well as Kelly’s smart screenplay and direction. The meaning of the title? Disclosed at the end, the hidden key to this bingeable series.

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ANATOMY OF A SCANDAL

The main cast of Anatomy of a Scandal

Across the Atlantic, we have a notable British court case dealing with a reputable Member of Parliament being charged with the rape of his staff researcher, a 6-episode adaptation of the 2018 novel by Sarah Vaughan.

Some well-known actors make up the cast of this Netflix mini-series. Rupert Friend plays MP James Whitehouse, Sienna Miller as wife Sophie, who stands by him until the truth is revealed. Prosecutor is Kate Woodcroft played by Michelle Dockery––Lady Mary Crawley of Downton––donning a wig, gown and glasses, convincing as a Queen’s Counsel. The victim is Olivia Lytton (Naomi Scott); defence barrister for James is Angela Regan (Josette Simon).

A rape case hanging on the issue of consent, both the prosecutor and defence offer persuasive arguments. Both sides contributed to some intense scenes in a sexual, criminal trial that involves, by its very nature, the need to be explicit and exact in its language and graphic in its description. Can the concept of ‘boys will be boys’, or, the misunderstanding of intent, ‘yes’ or ‘no’, be a viable defence for rape?

Similar storylines had appeared in movies such as The Riot Club (2014), very similar indeed, as the privileged boys from Oxford University, like the Libertines here, exercise freely their liberties and vulgarity. More recently, the Oscar winning Promising Young Woman (2020), written and directed by Emerald Fennell and starring Carey Mulligan, delivers a U.S. medical school version.

More than just courtroom drama. The backstory of these characters is intriguing and as the truth reveals itself, the moral complexity multiplies. Interestingly, the ‘brass verdict’ concept in The Lincoln Lawyer finds affiliation here. Cinematography is slick and editing is fast-paced. An apt transposition of Vaughan’s novel.

~ ~ ~ Ripples for both

Hamaguchi takes ‘Drive My Car’ to the highway of life

Among the ten Best Picture Oscar nominees this year, one is Japan’s official entry for Best International Feature Film. That Drive My Car is nominated also in the Best Picture category as well as in Directing and Adapted Screenplay is a major boost for director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi. The most recent precedent would be the South Korean feature Parasite in 2020.

The following is my review of Drive My Car, a screen adaptation based on Haruki Murakami’s short story. I thank Asian American Press for allowing me to repost it in full here on Ripple Effects.

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Ever since his five-hour epic Happy Hour garnered accolades in 2015, Japanese director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi has continued to fascinate juries in the festival circuit. During a pandemic year, he made two features, both screened to high acclaims. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy won the 2021 Silver Berlin Bear Jury Prize and Drive My Car swept Cannes, winning Best Screenplay, the FIPRESCI Prize and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury.

Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura in “Drive My Car”

Drive My Car is Hamaguchi’s creative and imaginative extension of Haruki Murakami’s minimal short story included in his collection Men Without Women. Two individuals unlikely to meet in ordinary circumstances, bare their soul to each other, one a stage actor and director Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), the other, a young female driver Misaki (Tôko Miura). The conversations that take place in the car prompt them to confront their own past.

The film opens with a long backstory. Kafuku has a loving and intimate relationship with his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), a TV writer. Her story ideas come while the couple is making love. Both being in the arts, they support each other in an intimate way until one day Kafuku comes home unexpectedly and finds Oto in bed with another man. Kafuku walks back out quietly. The next day, Oto suggests they talk that night when he returns from work. Deeply hurt but fear for the collapse of their marriage, he delays coming home. When he finally gets home late that night he finds Oto has collapsed from a cerebral hemorrhage. She dies later without regaining consciousness. 

This prologue takes 40 minutes and that’s when the introductory credits appear on screen. Hamaguchi will take another two hours and more to tell the rest of his story which begins two years after Oto’s death. Despite the three-hour duration, the film captivates with thought provoking parallels between art and life and reveals the characters’ existential anguish with a quiet poignancy. 

Kafuku loves to drive his fire red Saab 900. He practices his lines while driving by interacting with dialogues recorded by his late wife Oto. As this main section of the movie begins, Kafuku is driving to Hiroshima to direct Anthon Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at a theatre festival. However, upon arrival, he is disappointed to learn that due to insurance stipulations, he is not allowed to drive but the festival has provided him with a driver to drive his car. She is twenty-three year old Misaki (Toko Miura). 

The audition soon takes place. Kafuku has chosen actors from various Asian countries who deliver their lines in their native language including Korean, Mandarin, Japanese, Tagalog, and Korean sign language used in a most poignant way by a deaf actress. With such a cast, this performance of Uncle Vanya will be a powerful display of shared humanity.

Coming to the audition is Takatsuki (Masaki Okada). Kafuku recognizes him right away as the man he had seen making love to his wife in his home. To Takatsuki’s surprise, Kafuku casts him in the lead role. The two start to have talks with each other outside of the rehearsal, the subject they share: Oto.  

The parallel between the lines in Uncle Vanya Kafuku practices in the car and his real-life predicament is startling, and poignantly so. If he had returned home earlier that fateful night he might have been able to save Oto. Seized with guilt and grief, he recites the lines, ‘I am forty-seven years old. I may live to sixty; I still have thirteen years before me; an eternity! How shall I be able to endure life for thirteen years? What shall I do? How can I fill them? … If only I could live the rest of my life in some new way!’

A play within a film and lines corresponding to the real-life situation of the character is an intriguing way to tell a story. The mirroring effect can be emotionally gripping. Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) comes to mind. As Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) practices the lines of the play she’s going to perform with the help of her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart), she is actually describing her own predicament. 

Reticent and appearing nonchalant, driver Misaki has a scarred childhood. Hearing the lines spoken in the car and as Kafuku talks about his guilt and loss, she too opens up. Two characters with a shattered past is thrown into each other’s internal turmoil, thus begins the healing of wounds and a step towards recovery. The aerial shot of the red Saab smoothly moving on the highway could well be a metaphor for the tranquility and freedom both occupants are seeking desperately.

A twist in the plot makes Takatsuki unable to perform in the play. Kafuku takes up the role as Vanya, a miserable man despondent with life. In a cathartic, final scene of the play, the lines are delivered in silence as the deaf actress playing Sonya encourages Vanya with her expressive sign language. The audience in the theatre, close up on Misaki, read the subtitles above the stage: ‘We must live our lives. Yes, we shall live, Uncle Vanya. We’ll patiently endure the trials that fate sends our way…’ As she finishes her speech pointing to eternal rest when they see God, the stage lights dim, with an oil lamp offering a tiny flicker of flame.

The last few minutes of the epilogue wraps the feature with a gratifying end.

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~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

‘The Power of the Dog’: Exquisite Cinematic Storytelling

From the very beginning as the opening credits appear, the premise of the story is laid out for the viewers. This is a crucial introduction as it sets the stage for what the story is about, how a son would do all he could to save his mother from suffering. The narrator is Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) via a voiceover: 

“When my father passed, I wanted nothing more than my mother’s happiness. For what kind of a man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?’

It is Montana in 1925. Peter’s mother Rose (Kirsten Dunst) runs The Red Mill restaurant and lodge in the remote landscape of the wild. One day a group of cowhands driving their cattle passes by. While dining at the restaurant, their leader, rancher Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), picks on the effeminate Peter as he serves them. Rose is distraught, but the kindness and love of Phil’s brother George (Jesse Plemons) wins her over. Not long after that the two are married. The downside of an otherwise beautiful relationship is having to live under the same roof with Phil in the Burbank family ranch home. 

The Burbank family ranch in The Power of the Dog. Photo: Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

Rose lives in fear of Phil, a bully who can crush her fragile psyche by just whistling. Phil’s masterful banjo playing is a slap in the face and a show of force as Rose struggles to learn to play the piano. George while loving is oblivious or rather subdued by Phil as well. Peter has gone away to study medicine but is back in the summer to be with his mother, observing keenly her deteriorating psychological state and addiction to alcohol for relief. The relevance of the opening lines in the voiceover begins to brew. 

New Zealand born director Jane Campion, one of only seven women ever to have been nominated for an Oscar in directing (The Piano, 1993), comes back with an exquisite production shot on location in New Zealand, twelve years after her last feature film. The Power of the Dog is an exemplar of superb cinematic storytelling.

Campion has an exceptional team under her helm. The four main characters are strong talents. Cumberbatch’s nasty streak is conveyed not only by his demeaning words but his posture and the confident way he walks and rides. However, nothing pierces as sharply as his often silent and chilly manner, staring his opponent down with his ominous gaze, a role that’s against type for the British actor who had brought Sherlock to a new generation and had since been nominated for an Oscar playing WWII math genius Alan Turing in The Imitation Game (2014). Cumberbatch’s performance here is in top form, likely getting him another Oscar nomination.

It is Smit-McPhee who steals the scene as the effeminate, slim and pale Peter. Underneath his appearance of weakness is his tenacity and a smart mind, especially when his self-imposed mission is to save his mother. Discovering accidentally Phil’s secret hideout, Peter comes to realize that hidden behind Phil’s macho front is a gay man. Knowing this, he gains Phil’s trust and admiration to turn the tables on him. The whole revealing of the plot flows out seamlessly; no doubt, credits also to the author of the 1967 novel the film is based on, Thomas Savage.

Campion’s storytelling is masterful in that she drops hint after hint as the film moves on, all important cues leading to the ultimate end. Without spilling any spoilers in this review, look out for these scenes: cows dead from anthrax, Peter’s anatomy exercise in his room, his exploring the mountains by himself and skinning the hide of a dead cow he comes across there, his gloved hands.

Cinematographer Ari Wegner frames her shots exquisitely and imbues them with contextual meaning to move the story along. The topography of the New Zealand location in place of Montana’s wild west exudes the beauty of the natural landscape, creating a colour palette of the open range with shades of brown, teal, and dusty rose for Dunst, at times capturing the natural light of the golden hour; Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven comes to mind. From her camera, the interior set design of the ranch home and the barn are framed with superb aesthetics.

The score composed by Jonny Greenwood (Phantom Thread, 2017) augments the suspenseful mood, particularly effective is the dissonance of the strings, revealing the discords among the characters and their internal strife.

A Western only in its setting, with no shootouts but no less intense, characterization astute, conflicts psychological. The finale leaves a slight, nuanced smile on the face of the victor. He can now ride off into the sunset with relief as the Bible verse the title comes from, Ps. 22:20, is fulfilled: ‘deliver me from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog.’ A new chapter begins for Rose and George as they step back into the ranch home as a free and happy couple.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

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The Power of the Dog is now streaming on Netflix.

The Lost Daughter: From Book to Screen

Elena Ferrante’s book The Lost Daughter (2006) is a harsh look at motherhood, shattering the romantic view associated with the word like maternal love and sacrificial nurturing. The protagonist Leda is torn between the demanding duties of caring for two young daughters and her own academic career. Overwhelmed and feeling suffocated, she abandons her children Bianca and Martha, 7 and 5, for three years.

Years later, Leda has become a successful academic and divorced. Her two daughters are now grown up and living with their father in Toronto. While taking a working holiday at the Ionian seaside, a boisterous family disrupts her peace and solitude on the beach. Though annoyed by their rowdy interruption, she’s drawn to a young mother, Nina, who has to constantly attend to a clingy three-year-old daughter Elena. Memories gush out from her own experience as a young mother, and with that, guilt. However, her guilt may not be so much about her abandonment of her daughters but that she “felt amazing without them.”

For a short while on the beach, Elena is lost. Nina and all the family are frantic in search of her. Leda finds her and brings her back to the fold. Just as she does this good deed, she hides a doll that Elena is attached to dearly. The family is now frantic in finding the lost doll as Elena is inconsolable. She later admits to Nina that “I’m an unnatural mother.” Is that enough to excuse herself?

While Ferrante doesn’t offer a psycho-analytical explanation, she does drop hints as to Leda’s own family background in Naples, her father coming from violent and vulgar association. Her mother had threatened abandonment verbally to her children but never did. To Leda, her mother was better off escaping and disappeared. “How ashamed I was to have come out of the belly of such an unhappy person,” she laments. 

Leda left her family at eighteen to go to Florence for more cultured and academic pursuit, determined to sever an undesirable family tie. While the little girl Elena is lost for a short while on the beach, Leda herself could well be the lost daughter that had never been found.

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Olivia Colman as Leda in The Lost Daughter directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal

The Lost Daughter movie adaptation is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut. She has a strong cast, notably Olivia Colman (The Favourite, The Crown) as Leda. Colman slips into the character perfectly and gives a natural and nuanced performance. Jessie Buckley as young Leda is another appropriate choice. The talented singer actor plays an exhausted mother convincingly. While away from her daughters and husband at a conference, she has an affair with a prominent academic, Professor Hardy, played by Gyllenhaal’s husband Peter Sarsgaard, whose performance carries traces of another role he’d played years ago as the smooth seducer David in Carey Mulligan’s breakout feature An Education (2009).

Other supporting cast is also strong with Dakota Johnson as Nina and Ed Harris as Lyle the seaside rental caretaker. It’s interesting to see his short interactions with Leda reveal Leda’s unreliable perception of others. Paul Mescal plays Will who works at the beach, reprising an understated performance as in Normal People (2020, TV series), adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel.

Gyllenhaal has mastered the story idea aptly, developing the screenplay like a character study which it ought to be. The effect of a handheld roving camera adds immediacy and suspense as we follow Leda in her short but eventful seaside vacation. Patricia Highsmith comes to mind. Gyllenhaal has altered the Neapolitan protagonist and the rowdy family into American, Leda from Cambridge near Boston, and the disruptive family as American tourists.

The present is interspersed with flashbacks seamlessly to depict Leda’s early years as a young mother torn between the constant demands of child-caring and her personal needs and ambition. Professor Hardy during his lecture in the conference mentions a quote by Simone Weil: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” At the time, to a young and rising academic, the relevance had not sunk in for Leda.

Overall a stirring screen adaptation with superb performance. However, one crucial element in the book has been left out and just replaced with a few dialogues and that’s Leda’s own family background and a mother who had always wanted to abandon her children. The lack of a more solid backstory about Leda’s own upbringing stirs up questions as to her present behaviour. Of course, as a two-hour movie, Gyllenhaal has the difficult task of choosing what to leave out from the book. The missed component of Leda’s own lack of maternal attention while growing up could have stripped off a deeper layer in the storytelling.

The ending is reaffirming. It’s good to know that Leda’s two daughters are forgiving young women, as they care for their mother and check up on her via long distance while she’s by herself on a seaside vacation in Greece. It’s good to see too that ‘bad mothering’ doesn’t need to perpetuate. 

~ ~ ~ Ripples

The Lost Daughter is now streaming on Netflix.

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‘Passing’ by Nella Larsen, from Novella to Screen

Chicago born author Nella Larsen is the daughter of a Dutch mother and a father of mixed race Afro-Caribbean from Danish West Indies. With that multiplicity in racial background and the zeitgeist of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920’s and 1930’s NYC, Larsen wrote Passing (1929), a novella about a Black woman passing as white in an acutely discriminatory society, setting up the stage for some suspenseful and intense storytelling.

Irene Redfield is a wife and mother of two sons, maintaining an orderly home in Harlem. Her husband Brian is a doctor, herself well connected and tightly engaged in the social life of her community. While visiting Chicago one time, she encounters an old school friend, Clare Kendry, whom she doesn’t recognize at first. It’s Clare who has spotted Irene in the rooftop restaurant and comes over to identify herself. That fateful reunion changes Irene’s life.

Twelve years have passed since Irene last saw Clare from school. Now standing in front of her is “an attractive-looking woman… with dark, almost black eyes and that wide mouth like a scarlet flower against the ivory of her skin.” (16)

That these two Black women can pass for whites and enter the Drayton Hotel’s rooftop restaurant is due to their light skin colour. This fact in itself implies the fluidity of racial definitions. Clare and Irene are biracial, and that term doesn’t even necessarily refer to half and half. Clare’s father is himself the son of a white father and a black mother. Her fair skin doesn’t betray her racial composition.

The character foil between Irene and Clare forms the crux and conflict in the story. Clare is bold and adventurous, a risk taker who is bound by no loyalty save for her own gratification. By marrying a white husband who is a banker, Jack Bellew, she has been living a privileged, white woman’s life. Curiously, she asks Irene “haven’t you ever thought of ‘passing’?”

Irene answered promptly: “No. Why should I?” And so disdainful was her voice and manner that Clare’s face flushed and her eyes glinted. Irene hastened to add: “You see, Clare, I’ve everything I want. Except, perhaps, a little more money.” (29)

To Irene, what Clare has done is dangerous and disloyal to her race. Well, she passes too sometimes but only when it’s necessary, like getting into Drayton’s rooftop restaurant to escape from the fainting spell due to the sweltering heat. But to Clare, it’s her life. She tells Irene, “all things considered… it’s even worth the price.” That is, despite the fact that she is living with a man who hates Blacks but is unaware of her racial heritage.

The search for identity is not so much the issue Clare is struggling with but loneliness. She has not been discovered for twelve years and now reuniting with Irene, she wants to re-connect with the people in her past life. Alluring and assertive, Clare gradually moves into Irene’s familial and social life.

Larsen’s 111 page novella is more than just about race. It is an intricately layered story that touches on multiple issues. While race is the most obvious one, more for Irene, but for Clare passing is for personal gain and socio-economic benefits, and the breakout of social boundaries. The book is also about female friendship, and the ambivalence that involves. Further, unexpected for all of them, as Clare enters Irene’s home, she begins to unhinge the equilibrium in relationships. She charms everyone, from the help to the two boys, and the most abhorrent suspicion Irene harbours, her husband Brian as well. Herein lies the turning point in the story.

Larsen tells her story with spare and concise narratives, her revealing of her character’s thoughts is precise and clear, that is, until we reach the ending. Like a suspense writer, Larsen has dropped hints as to where she’s leading the reader towards the end. And yet, it is as open-ended as how a reader is prepared to see. Herein lies Larsen’s ingenuity.

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Tessa Thompson as Irene (L) and Ruth Negga as Clare in Passing, film adaptation written and directed by Rebecca Hall

The film adaptation (2021) is the directorial debut of British actor Rebecca Hall who also wrote the screenplay. It is a project that she had attempted to launch for some years. The book aligns with a family history as her maternal grandfather was a Black man who had passed as white for most of his life in Detroit, Michigan.

What Larsen has written, Hall has materialized on screen with parallel, meticulous mastery. That the film is shot in black and white is a brilliant idea, for viewers can see quite readily, in between the black and the white is a spectrum of greys, clearly showing Larsen’s concept of the fluidity of socially-constructed racial definitions. The 4:3 Academy ratio works to lead us into a glimpse of a specific past where Clare could well fit the image of a flapper in 1920’s NYC.

Hall has simplified the locations and mainly focused on Harlem. She has effectively selected the essential passages and lines and transposed them on screen. Out of Larsen’s spare novella the writer-director has created a thought provoking visual narrative with stylish aesthetics and implications that still resonate in our times.

I’ve always been intrigued by the image on the Penguin edition of the book cover. At the beginning of the film, Hall shows us the significance of it. Irene wears a translucent hat that’s half covering her face, an aid to shield her features as she goes shopping in Manhattan, just in case, and in the hotel room where she meets Clare’s racist husband John (Alexander Skarsgård), a necessary means of defence.

The interplay between Tessa Thompson as Irene and Ruth Negga as Clare is immaculate and well-directed, nuances revealed in the slightest changes in facial expressions and gestures. The reunion of old friends is not all celebratory, an ambivalence is clearly conveyed by Irene. Andr´é Holland (Moonlight, 2016; Selma, 2014) plays Brian, loving husband and father who is acutely aware of the racial atrocities in the country. Like Clare, he wants to breakout and be free.

Another major asset is cinematography. Edu Grau (Suffragette, 2015; A Single Man, 2009) has crafted a stylish work with depth. His camera is spot-on when it’s needed to capture the expressions of the characters, especially between the two women as often their faces are the visual dialogues when none is spoken. And throughout the film, the jazz motif sets the mood that weaves through scenes.

What’s explicitly written in a book can only be shown with images on screen. Hall is effective in adding sequences that are illustrative in revealing Irene’s fears as she sees Brian and Clare becoming closer. And with the visual comes the sound. In the tea party at their home to honor the writer Hugh Wentworth (Bill Camp), Irene’s heavy breathing we hear as the camera follows her around the house lets us feel her restrained anger and unsettling spirit. The breaking of the tea pot and the conversations she has with Hugh who helps her pick up the pieces is most telling. These are apt additions as a gradual revealing leading to the end.

Like Larsen’s novella, the ending is open to interpretation. However, what Hall implies seems to be different from the author’s. Read the novella, watch the film. This is an intriguing pairing of two exceptional storytelling in both art forms.

Passing is a nominee of the 2021 Sundance Grand Jury Prize. It has been screening in the festival circuit and is a new release on Netflix starting November 10.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

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Passing by Nella Larsen, Penguin Books, NY., 2018, With an insightful Introduction and Suggestions for Further Reading by Emily Bernard, 128 pages. (Story from p. 10-120)

Novellas in November, click here and here to see what others are reading.

Nomadland: From Book to Screen

It first started with journalist Jessica Bruder camping in a tent then later in a van for three winters in the desert around Quartzsite, Arizona. Her plan was to get acquainted with a group of modern-day nomads living in RV’s, vans, and car campers. Bruder’s three-year research resulted in the non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twentieth-first Century (2017), an eye-opening account of a fringe population growing in large numbers after the 2008 financial meltdown. Many of the nomads were once middle-class Americans who had lost their jobs, homes, investments and retirement savings during the economic crisis.

Bob Wells, who started the website CheapRVLiving.com in 2005, is the guru of nomadic living. But it was after the 2008 economic catastrophe that he saw the traffic to his site ‘exploded’. Linda May and Swankie are two of these nomads in their 60’s and 70’s. To sustain their living, many become migrant workers doing seasonal work and hard labour in Amazon warehouses to earn minimal wages.

Bruder’s book is rich in data and testimonials. While offering an in-depth look at how the nomads not only survive on bare essentials but how they find community, friendship and support, at the same time, it is a scathing social commentary on the human toll of the 2008 financial meltdown, and a stark revealing of exploitive employment of a vulnerable, elderly labor force.

What follows is intriguing. One of my first questions to ask Frances McDormand if I had the chance to interview her would be why she thought Bruder’s non-fiction work, though exceptional, would make a good movie so much so that she acquired its film rights.

Cut to the Toronto International Film Festival, September, 2017, where the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri starring McDormand was screened. Stepping out of a press junket for her film, McDormand went to catch another TIFF selection, The Rider directed by Chloe Zhao. After watching, she knew who she’d want to direct the movie adaptation of Nomadland.

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Frances McDormand and Chloe Zhao on the set of Nomadland. Photo by Joshua James Richards

Adhering to her first two features, Songs my Brothers Taught Me and The Rider, director Chloé Zhao casts real-life, non-professionals to play a cinematic version of themselves. She shot her debut work in the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and have Lakota youth tell their story. For The Rider, about a cowboy facing the end of his career after a fall during a rodeo resulting in a traumatic head injury, Zhao casts a real life bronco who’d suffered a similar tragedy to play himself.

Zhao’s signature naturalistic rendering is how she styles the adaptation of Nomadland. Real life nomads in Bruder’s book, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells among others all appear as themselves, enhancing authenticity. To develop a narrative vein, Zhao creates two fictional characters, Fern (Frances McDormand) and Dave (David Strathairn), to weave among them.

In the film, an unadorned McDormand, spot-on with her weary and dishevelled looks as Fern, mingles and makes friends with the nomads, learning the ropes of self-sufficiency. With Linda May, she works as a camp host and as a warehouse worker with Amazon’s CamperForce. Through the dialogues, some of Bruder’s researched data and testimonials flow out naturally.

Born in Beijing, China, Zhao was uprooted when just a teenager to travel to the UK for school and later to the US. She graduated from college in Massachusetts, after that attended NYU Tisch School of the Arts and is now living in California. Her diasporic experience is itself a kind of a nomadic journey. It could well be that her liminal identity, an insider-outsider multiplicity, has equipped her with a unique point of view as a filmmaker.

Shot in five Western States on location where nomads frequent, the film Nomadland is essentially about one woman’s journey towards healing as she takes to the road. Fern and her husband Bo had long worked for US Gypsum and built their home and community in the company town Empire, Nevada. When Bo died of cancer, and later the whole town disappeared from the map as US Gypsum shut down its plant in 2011 after 88 years, Fern stayed in her company house till the very end. There’s this poignant dialogue when she talks to Bob Wells:

“Bo never knew his parents and we never had kids. If I didn’t stay, if I left, it would be like he never existed… It’s like my dad used to say: ‘What’s remembered lives.’ ”

From a non-fiction book on nomads surviving America, Zhao has turned it into a humanistic, personal narrative of loss and healing. While the book is more explicit in its critique and social commentary, Zhao’s film exudes a tone of acceptance, as her focus is not so much on societal ills or corporate greed but the humanity of the characters.

The camera follows Fern in her attempts to connect her past with her present, as she travels down the road to an unknown future. Shot in the magic hour of dawn and dusk and accompanied by the pensive score by Ludovico Einaudi (The Father, 2020), cinematographer Joshua James Richards (The Rider, 2017) knows when to capture Nature’s golden light to elicit depth and allow time for thoughts. While nature is a healer––and we see many soul-stirring scenes reminiscent of Terrence Malick––Fern’s journey to recovery rests in the memories of the ones she still loves even though they have all departed.

And with that, Zhao invokes The Bard. In the latter part of the film, Fern meets a young drifter Derek again and they chat. Derek is lost for words when writing letters to his girlfriend. Fern suggests he uses a poem, and upon his prompting, she shares the one she used as her wedding vow, Sonnet 18. When two characters sitting on gravel ground beside a makeshift fire for warmth adjacent a highway and one recites a Shakespearean love sonnet, it seems incompatible with the setting. But then, why would it be?

What follows is probably the most beautiful sequence in the film. From memory, Fern starts: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?/Thou art more lovely and more temperate…” As she goes on, the camera shifts to the evening sky and finally rests on Fern in the van looking at slides of her dad, mom, sister, and herself as a young child as we hear her voice-over continuing with the sonnet towards the last lines: “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” Thereafter, the camera follows Fern to the redwood forest, where her outstretched arms can only span a tiny portion of a tree trunk, herself minuscule in comparison.

Thus she drives on to a destination unknown. And ‘this’ that gives life could be two-fold. Nature and her memories of loved ones, not a sonnet written with words but one etched deep in her heart.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

***

Nomadland won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress at the 2021 Academy Awards, among 230 other wins internationally.

Jessica Bruder, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (W. W. Norton & Company, 2017) 273 pp., hardcover. The book won Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award. Jessica Bruder is an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

This article also posted on Shiny New Books. Do check them out.

***

Other Related Ripple Reviews:

Nomadland: A Book Review

The Rider is Poetry on Screen

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

‘The Father’ depicts dementia in suspenseful realism

Dementia is a land where its inhabitants can never come out, and visitors can only look in from the outside. To add to the isolation, they speak a different language outsiders don’t understand.

In his role as an 80-year-old man afflicted with dementia in The Father, Anthony Hopkins has shown he’s an apt interpreter of that language. With his astute performance, the iconic British actor becomes the oldest person to win an acting Oscar this April, his second after The Silence of the Lamb in 1992.

The Father is based on the 2012 play Le Père by French playwright director Florian Zeller. It received the Molière Award for Best Play in 2014. The English version was translated by Christopher Hampton in 2016 and performed on Broadway. Hampton and Zeller co-wrote the adaptation to film. At this year’s Academy Awards, they won Best Adapted Screenplay. This is Hampton’s second Oscar win for writing; his first was for Dangerous Liaison in 1988. And for Zeller, his debut feature garnered six Oscar nominations including Best Picture.

Zeller’s intriguing way of storytelling lets viewers experience vicariously what a dementia sufferer goes through. First off, it is uncanny that Hopkins’s character is named Anthony. The film is shot from his point-of-view.

The editing by Yorgos Lamprinos strings together seamlessly the conflicting perspectives of Anthony’s: the mingling of memories, the confusion of happenings and imagination, the loss of a timeframe for past events, the distortion of present realities, and perhaps most disturbing for those close to him: unrecognizable faces. Describing how Zeller achieve these effects will be like giving out spoilers. I’ll just say this, The Father is like the Rashomon of dementia.

Zeller’s film is cinematic realism depicting the condition of dementia. The confused, bewildered look of Hopkins in close ups is accompanied by repetitive, eerie music, rendering the scenes suspenseful, not far from a Hitchcockian thriller. When one has lost the capacity of one’s brain, it is a scary experience. Anthony knows his way down the hallway to his room, but is this his flat? Where’s his watch, again? And, what happened to that painting that used to be hanging on the wall? The cast of seven brings out a powerful narrative in just 97 minutes.

Another realistic portrayal is Olivia Colman as the daughter Anne, who has to convince her father that he needs help. She struggles with the conflict between filial love and personal freedom, her husband (Rufus Sewell) does not make things easier for her either. And to complicate matter further, Anne is not her father’s favourite but her younger sister Lucy…

We’ve had a couple of excellent films on the subject of aging and dementia in the past. Away from Her (2006) directed by Sarah Polley who adapted Alice Munro’s short story is about a wife stricken by Alzheimer’s, and Michael Heneke’s Amour (2012) narrates an aging husband caring for his debilitated wife after her stroke, both received Oscar nods. Zeller has contributed to this repertoire of films with a perspective from the point-of view of the patient, adding to it a daughter’s internal conflicts.

No matter how much Anne tries to keep her father living with her, his condition needs professional care and monitoring, something she finds hard to get through to a dementia patient who is determined to be self-reliant. Colman’s performance is sensitive and moving.   

A very clever man, this father hasn’t totally lost it. The scene where he meets his new caregiver Laura (Imogen Poots) in Anne’s home shows how sharp he can still be, and not just Anthony the character, but Hopkins the actor, who is in his top form.

Original music is by Ludovico Einaudi (Nomadland, 2020) whose score reflects the mental state of Anthony’s, enhancing the cinematic effects. The opera music at the beginning of the film which Anthony is listening to, and later reprises is from Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles. The poignant piece is his link to the person he once was, the song entitled Je crois entendre encore: ‘I believe I still hear.’

Eventually, the inevitable question has to be asked by Anthony, an antithesis to a cathartic ending: ‘Who exactly am I?’

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

***

Related Reviews on Ripple Effects:

Away From Her

Rashomon and other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

And When Did You Last See Your Father

Asian Heritage Month Movie List

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. In Canada, it’s Asian Heritage Month. Asia is the largest continent in the world, encompassing countries from the Middle East to the Pacific Islands. As this event is celebrated in North America, the term refers to North Americans born or naturalized and living in the US and Canada with ancestral heritage from these countries. Interestingly, I find this Good Housekeeping site highly informative regarding the AAPI references.

There are many movies made by filmmakers of this demographics in North America. The following are some worthy titles, each has its unique way of leaving a mark. Links are to my reviews on Asian American Press or Ripple Effects.

I’m presenting my list in chronological order to highlight the historical development.

The Joy Luck Club (1993)

Movie poster from 1993

The first studio film with a mostly Asian American cast flying into the ‘mainstream’ radar. Adapted from Amy Tan’s debut novel, it tells the stories of multigenerational Chinese immigrant families in America. The breakout film of director Wayne Wang, who at that time had been making movies for over 10 years. Unfortunately, it would take twenty-five more years for another feature of the kind to come out.

Water (2005)

India born Canadian director Deepa Mehta’s final work in the Elements Trilogy, Water was an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film representing Canada in 2007. The heart-wrenching plight of a little Indian girl is told with beautiful cinematography. A ‘Foreign Language Film’ from Canada? Yes, just shows the multiplicity of our identity and the blurring definition of the word ‘foreign.’ This Oscar category was renamed Best International Feature Film in 2020.

The Namesake (2006)

Here’s a prime example of the multiplicity of identity. A film adaptation by the acclaimed Indian-American director Mira Nair. The Namesake (2003) is the first novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, the London born American Pulitzer winning writer of Indian descent, who now resides in Italy and writing in her adopted language, Italian. The story depicts a colourful and conflicting journey of the America born second generation visiting their parents’ homeland.

Life of Pi (2012)

This adaptation of Yann Martel’s Booker Prize winning novel was the winner of Oscar Best Picture in 2013 and with it, Taiwanese American Ang Lee won his second Oscar for directing. Stunning CGI visuals transfer Martel’s magical realism onto the big screen to tell the story of a 16 year-old youth adrift in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger. Opportune time and place to explore existential issues. Both book and film are worthy of the accolades they had garnered.

The Big Sick (2017)

The real-life, mixed-race marriage of actor/comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his therapist wife Emily V. Gordon co-wrote this screenplay about a mixed-race courtship between a Pakistani American comedian and his love interest, a white young woman played by Zoe Kazan, with Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as her parents. An entertaining depiction of cultural clash and final resolution.

Columbus (2017)

A quiet, visual depiction of the interplay between modern architecture, human relationships, and the existential search for meaning and connection. A most unusual subject matter aesthetically handled by Korean American director Kogonada. John Cho breaks away from the type cast as Sulu in Star Trek to prove himself worthy as a character actor of quality.

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

The new trend Asian American filmmakers and talents hope to see, twenty-five years after The Joy Luck Club. Director Jon M. Chu turns Kevin Kwan’s breakout novel into a blockbuster hit, catapulting Asian American talents to mainstream fame: Constance Wu, Awkwafina, Henry Golding (ok, so he’s a British Chinese), Gemma Chan (she too), with the full support of international star Michelle Yeoh (the first Asian Bond Girl in Tomorrow Never Dies.)

Free Solo (2018)

Husband-and-wife directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi captured the stunning climb made by Alex Honnold up the 3,000 feet vertical wall of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park with only his bare hands and feet, solo and free from ropes and safety gears. Chin is himself a renown mountain climbing legend and photographer, having mounted Meru Peak in the Himalayas, as well as Everest several times. Oscar winner of Best Documentary Feature in 2019.

Driveways (2019)

Korean American director Andrew Ahn tells the story of an ageing Korean war veteran’s friendship with a shy 8-year-old boy (Lucas Jaye) who shows up with his single mom (Hong Chau) next door. A quiet and poignant portrayal of friendship that crosses the borders of age and race. One of Brian Dennehy’s last films before his death in 2020 at age 81. A nominee for Best Feature Film at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2019.

Late Night (2019)

Daughter of Indian immigrants, Mindy Kaling has made a name for herself with her versatility as a comedian, actor, writer, producer, and director. Late Night is her own story, parallel with her career starting out in The Office as a writer and actor. Here, a girl of Indian ethnicity enters into a late night TV show as a writer, serving the very demanding host Katherine Newbury, played by Emma Thompson. Directed by Nisha Ganatra, a Canadian American of Indian descent. A delightful film.

The Farewell (2019)

Chinese American director Lulu Wang shares her own family experience boldly in this semi-autobiographical film. The cultural perspectives of how to deal with a family member with terminal illness could be totally opposite. Instead of a judgemental tone, the film uses an artistic styling and humour to tell a very personal story. Awkwafina became the first Asian American to win a Golden Globe Best Actress in a Motion Picture for her fine performance.

Minari (2020)

MINARI_02405_R Alan S. Kim Director Lee Isaac Chung Credit: Josh Ethan Johnson

The trend continues. With six Oscar nominations this year and one win by South Korean veteran actress Youn Yuh-jung who plays the eccentric grandma of the family. Directed by Lee Isaac Chung, Minari is an autobiographical drama of Chung’s childhood growing up in an Arkansas farm operated by his immigrant father from South Korea. Gentle and slow-paced storytelling with a powerful punch.

***

‘Minari’: The Little Seed that Could

Minari is a semi-autobiographical narrative based on director Lee Isaac Chung’s childhood experience. It tells the story of a Korean immigrant father striving to succeed in America while his wife strains to keep their family together. In the midst of the struggle for a better life, two children watch and learn and grow. 

Chung’s counterpart in the movie, seven-year-old David (Alan Kim), follows his parents Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han), together with his older sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho), to relocate from California to rural Arkansas in the 1980’s. Driven by the ambition to be successful, especially in the eyes of his children, Jacob has purchased 50 acres of land to start a farm growing Korean produce. With the influx of Korean immigrants coming into the country during that time, Jacob sees a wealth of opportunity.

MINARI_00195_R Alan S. Kim, Steven Yeun Director Lee Isaac Chung Credit: Melissa Lukenbaugh/A24

Jacob and Monica still hold a day job at a hatchery doing chicken sexing, separating the male chicks from the female, but Jacob sees no future in the routine work. The farm is his dream. In the sexing process, the male chicks are discarded, for they don’t taste as good and can’t lay eggs. A ready object lesson for him to teach his young son: be useful. And when he digs a well, he dismisses the dowsing method offered to him. “Koreans use their heads,” he tells David.

Monica, however, sees a very different picture. The dream home in the country for Jacob is for her, realistically, a trailer on wheels held up by cinder blocks. Water is from a well which later is drained dry to the crops. There’s no community nearby. Her main concern is living far from a hospital as David has a life-threatening heart murmur. “Don’t forget to keep praying,” she tells David. The couple’s opposing views lead to frequent conflicts in front of the children.

The tipping point comes when Monica’s mother is recruited to help with the kids. Arriving from Korea, Grandma Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung) brings with her Korean spices and rarity not found in America, as well as Korean songs, memory of courtship that has long been buried by her daughter and son-in-law.

For David, Grandma is far from what he has expected. She is a raucous card player, swears, doesn’t cook or bake, uses half his room and, aggravating his annoyance, snores. The interplay between grandma and grandson make up some light-hearted scenes which elicit from Kim performance in his natural poise alongside the veteran, seasoned Youn. The key element in their eventual bonding is love. Kudos to Chung for his screenplay and directing.

MINARI_02405_R Alan S. Kim Director Lee Isaac Chung Credit: Josh Ethan Johnson

Another supporting role that has added spice to the film is Paul (Will Patton), a practical farm help to Jacob. A devout Pentecostal, Paul’s eccentricity is a laughing stock even with church kids. Jacob does not subscribe to his beliefs. Admirably, the two can still work in harmony.

Premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and winning both its Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize, Minari has come a long way this past year garnering accolades. The film is now an Oscar nominee in six categories including Best Picture, Best Director and Original Screenplay for Chung. Yeun becomes the first actor of Asian descent to be nominated for Best Actor. Youn gets a nod for Best Supporting Actress and composer Emile Mosseri for Best Original Score.

Compared to his acclaimed debut feature Munyurangabo (2007), an arthouse, experimental film about two youths in post-genocide Rwanda, Minari is a conventional take on a personal, family story. The storytelling is linear and captured in realism, as we follow the Yi family’s first arrival to rural Arkansas and the daily struggles as an immigrant, farm family. The film’s subject matter and Chung’s handling is deceivingly simple.

Thanks to the eponymous vegetable, the minari, Lee transfers the specific to a wider scope in different layers. Minari is a Korean watercress that grows hardily in wet soil. Grandma has brought some minari seeds with her from Korea and sows them beside the creek near their home. As days go by, the plants thrive on their own, an apt metaphor for the resilience and adaptability of immigrants taking roots in a new soil. 

In contrast to a grim lesson of discarding the male chicks at the hatchery David learns from his father, the minari along the creek is a visual reminder of being alive and useful. Grandma sings its praises, for the versatile vegetable can be put in kimchi, stew, and soup, and used as medicine when sick. “Minari, Wonderful.” Grandma and David burst out in an impromptu song. A delightful scene is captured by the camera. As the wind blows, the plants bow as if acknowledging their praises. A moment of magical realism.

As time goes by, the minari plants thrive, and David’s heart condition has improved on its own such that surgery is no longer needed. In the climactic scene and its fallout, a contrast is particularly notable. Jacob sweats and labors on his crops which can be gone in an instant, but the minari grows naturally in the wild and David’s illness healed, pointing to a harvest of transcending grace that is beyond human efforts. The denouement is a gratifying close to a chapter of childhood memory.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

***

I thank Asian American Press for allowing me to post my review here in full.

‘The Dig’ is a Visual Meditation on Time and Life

Don’t judge a movie by its title. The seemingly uninspiring title packs a lot of story and ideas. Based on a true event and the novel of the same name by John Preston, the dig refers to the historic excavation of an Anglo-Saxon ship and the treasures inside its burial chamber, the medieval grave of possibly a warrior king dating back to 600’s AD. The archaeological event took place at the start of WWII in 1939 on Edith Pretty’s Sutton Hoo property in Suffolk, England. For a historical reference point, just seventeen years earlier, English archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Director Simon Stone has chosen to turn a spectacular archeological find into a lyrical, visual narrative that is elegiac and ponderous in tone. His focus isn’t so much on the unearthed treasures but the process of the dig, and the human stories adhere to it. A valuable asset Stone holds in his helm is an excellent cast.

Carey Mulligan plays Edith Pretty, the widow of a Colonel whom she still mourns at his grave while raising their young son Robert (Archie Barnes). As an amateur archeology enthusiast, she has a feeling the mounds on her grounds have something significant buried. Hiring a local excavator, Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), she watches her hunch realized.

However, Edith’s deteriorating heart condition is a constant reminder of her own mortality, a tug at her soul, brewing a deep concern for her son Robert after she’s gone. Mulligan acts not just with her facial expressions; her whole body speaks to the fragility of life. While treasures are unearthed, her fears and sentiments are buried deep within.

To interplay with Mulligan’s delicate demeanor, Fiennes delivers an understated performance with the unglamorous character Basil Brown. A country excavator, stooped in posture, quiet yet determined, apparently knowing much more than he shows. It is gratifying to see the two of them interact in a naturalistic way, their expressions equally sensitive and nuanced.

Reading about Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tuktankamun, Edith is apprehensive about finding human remains in the dig, as that’s like disinterring the dead. Brown answers with his view of the philosophy of the discipline: “… that’s life what’s revealed. And that’s why we dig.” And, as his wife May (Monica Dolan) points out, it’s about continuity for the next generations, so they know where they come from.

The ‘untrained’ Brown––with no academic credentials but learned the skill from his father passed down from his grandfather––has to yield to the authority of the famous archaeologist from the British Museum, Charles Phillips (Ken Stott). Phillips takes over the dig as soon as he arrives on the site with his team of specialists.

Among them are the archaeologist couple Stuart Piggott (Ben Chaplin) and his young wife Peggy (Lily James). Their incompatibility is obvious; Stuart is happier with fellow team member John Brailsford (Eamon Farren) than with his wife. Later, the arrival of Edith’s cousin Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn, Mr. Knightley of Emma, 2020) further alters the relational dynamics. While at the dig, Rory is called up by the RAF, a worrisome commission as war with Germany breaks out.

There’s interesting play with sound, or the lack of. For some short moments in certain scenes, there’s just silence. All sound and music halt. Most other times, the score is meditative, quiet piano playing. There are often juxtapositions of scenes linked by voice-overs, offering a fresh way of storytelling. This is effective not just to show what’s happening at different places or time, but that the dialogues can be relevant for different people in other situations as well.

Cinematographer Mike Eley captures on screen some exquisite sights of the English open country, wide shots shrouded with a hazy light, sometimes teal, sometimes golden. Terence Davies’s Sunset Song comes to mind, albeit The Dig is a much quieter film.

Young Robert’s fantasy with the cosmos and his imaginary tales cannot be brushed away as just spice to animate the mood. Kudos to Moira Buffini’s screenplay, the film wraps up with mother and son laying close together in the dug-up ship under a starry sky at night, as Robert tells his mother and Brown observing nearby, his woven tale of the ship taking the queen home to the stars to meet the king, leaving everyone behind, a poignant metaphor and a fable-like send off. Mulligan and Barnes are treasures here. That aerial shot is magical.

The Dig begins streaming January 29, 2021 on Netflix. I’ve watched it twice so far, once isn’t enough to capture all that need to be noted to appreciate.

~ ~ ~ ½ Ripples

‘Pieces of a Woman’ Review

For the first 30 minutes before the title comes out on screen, viewers follow almost in real time a home birth gone awry. They witness the intense moments of Martha (Vanessa Kirby) giving birth, the contractions, the unbearable pain, the difficult labor, the birth, the joy, and then the tragedy. That first section is absorbing and the shaky handheld camera increases the intensity.

The movie is inspired by screenwriter Kata Wéber and director Kornél Mundruczó’s real-life experience of losing a baby during pregnancy. In Pieces of a Woman, the duo depict not just the court of legal proceedings, but the court of public opinion, and within the family, generational and relational adversary when faced with the loss of a baby.

Martha and her partner Sean (Shia Labeouf) maintains a precarious relationship to start. She dresses chicly, works in a modern tower and has her own office; he works in construction outdoor building a bridge. It’s not so much their jobs but the incompatible personalities between them. Martha is soft spoken and reflective; Sean, sporting a bushy beard, is boorish (his own word, albeit sarcastically) and physically abusive. The dashed hope of a child tears apart an already fragile relationship.

Kirby doesn’t let her previous role as Princess Margaret in The Crown S1 & 2 define her. Here as Martha, she is everywoman expecting her first baby, mixing hope with trepidation. Reticent in her demeanour, after the death of her newborn, she withdraws deeper into her own self, grieving in her own way, picking up the pieces of what’s left of a woman. She is the main attraction of the movie.

Labeouf’s psyche is a mixed bag too, but with different elements. His hopeful excitement of imminent fatherhood is obvious, but is it another aspect of domination? Considering Labeouf’s real-life legal charges against him of domestic violence and sexual battery, it’s eery to watch him befitting the role of a needy abuser.

It is the veteran actor Ellen Burstyn’s performance as the overbearing mother of Martha’s that bring out the two main characters. Burstyn plays Elizabeth, domineering and combative. The beginning scene sets the tone as she buys a minivan for Martha and Sean. Not a good thing to let your mother-in-law buy you a new car, or the mother of your girlfriend, same thing. Elizabeth despises Sean and belittles her own daughter. So much for the symbol of the big gift.

Elizabeth’s reaction to the tragic home birth is to push Martha to sue the midwife Eva (Molly Parker) for negligence. In her view, that’s the way to get justice and compensation. While the legal trial leads to an unexpected resolution at the end, the climax of the movie comes a little earlier, in Elizabeth’s classy, tastefully decorated home. It highlights the court of domestic interactions, setting up a scene reminiscence of August: Osage County (2013). Elizabeth’s survival and combative instinct challenges Martha’s reticence. This is one of the two best scenes of the whole movie. The other during the court recess of the trial, but I won’t elaborate or it will be a spoiler.

Here in Elizabeth’s home where the family has gathered, the camera follows Martha in a long take as she moves agitatedly around the living and dining room, a woman reacting to pieces of casual conversations aiming at making the mood light, but which soon crescendos into a full blown mother-daughter confrontation.

Well acted and absorbing. A takeaway could be that, experience is subjective and personal; what one generation has gone through and even lessons learned can best be shared and hopefully inspire but can’t be transferred or expected to elicit the same results in the next generation. Amidst the tension, Elizabeth relays her wartime moment of resilience when as a young child, how a doctor held her weak body up by her feet and said, “if she tries to lift her head, then there’s hope.” And, she did. Now that she’s an ageing mother, a new lesson to learn might be to realize that such an experience cannot be imposed on her daughter, for Martha has her own way to deal with grief and ‘lift her head’, as shown at the conclusion of the trial.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

___________________________

Pieces of a Woman won the Arca Cinema Giovani Award and Vanessa Kirby Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival 2020. Now streaming on Netflix.