‘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 For a historical reference point, just seventeen years earlier, English archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun.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

National Theatre Live

National Theatre Live launched in June, 2009. Cameras are placed in strategic locations in the theatre to capture the stage performance live and broadcast to various venues the world over. According to the NTL website, over 3.5 million people have experienced this remote viewing of plays from London stages, with over 1,100 venues around the world, 550 in the UK alone. For the price of a movie ticket, I can be transported to the front row of these performances.

I ‘discovered’ this treasure too late, well, too late to see Skylight, with two of my faves Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy. Skylight received 7 nominations for the Tony Awards coming this Sunday, June 7, including acting noms for Mulligan and Nighy, direction for Stephen Daldry, and overall Best Revival of a Play.

NTL’s Skylight had been shown in our Cineplex already, and I missed it. But, all is not lost. In the past two months since I knew about this treasure, I’ve watched three plays and have bought ticket to the October debut of Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch. Looking forward to that.

Here are the three shows I’d watched in the past few weeks. Click on the link to the NTL website for full descriptions. The following is just a summary of my thoughts.

The Hard Problem by Tom Stoppard

The Hard Problem

My full admiration to Tom Stoppard for writing a play to explore this hard problem, one that’s not very popular nowadays when science and technology reign supreme, when Dawkins speaks like the indisputable authority: Is evolutionary biology the all-encompassing codebook answering every human question? Hillary, a psychology research fellow at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science prays to God every night, simply madness to her fellow researcher. Her concerns: Can neuroscience explain consciousness, or beauty, or morality, faith, longings? And, sometimes one does need a miracle or two when dealing with personal regrets. The play is an intellectual odyssey with lively and energetic exchanges of amusing dialogues, humour that teases me with lines reminiscent of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

This is Stoppard’s new play in nine years. Mentored by Samuel Beckett, friend of Harold Pinter, writing for both stage and screen, Stoppard, at 77, remains one of my most respected writers. I’d loved Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, but his works on screen have been equally impressive with the Oscar winning Shakespeare In Love (1998), Parade’s End (2012, one of my fave TV mini-series), the Oscar nominated Anna Karenina (2012), and Empire of the Sun (1987, a unique and haunting chronicle of childhood).

And for this play, nobody is preaching anything here, there’s no need to, just raising the hard problem, that’s all. We hear that line in Hamlet ring out loud and clear: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”


The View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller

A View from the Bridge performed at Wyndham's Theatre Richard Hansell as Louis, Nicola Walker as Beatrice, Mark Strong as Eddie, Michael Gould as Alfieri, Emun Elliott as Marco ©Alastair Muir 16.02.15

Mark Strong is explosive as Eddie Carbone, the longshoreman who accommodates in his home two of his wife’s cousins, brothers and illegal immigrants just arrived from Sicily. Eddie’s possessive care and love for his niece Catherine who has been living with him all the years, turns to malicious jealousy as she falls for the younger of the brothers. Miller’s play is about the American Dream gone sour.

What an eye-opener of a stage play. Mounted at London’s Young Vic Theatre, the stage design is stylishly minimal. With audience viewing from three sides, it lays bare the human soul and its inexplicable and unbridled emotions. I have not seen anything like it. First off, can you imagine two men taking a shower on stage at the beginning of the play… with real water, and towards the end, that water turns into blood showering down, covering all the characters for the stunning, tragic ending.


Man and Superman by Bernard Shaw

Man and Superman

This one, I must say hats off to Ralph Fiennes for his extraordinary energy. Playing Jack Tanner, a radical thinker of his days, and the reluctant guardian and later romantic resolve for a beautiful heiress, Fiennes leads us on a wild ride from reality to fantasy, from earth to hell and back again. Well, no superhero in our CGI saturated movies nowadays can rival. Blurting out lines after lines non-stop for over three hours, in one take, dialogues covering all the brilliance of Shaw’s philosophical, social, and political views, with spot-on timing and great fun. Which comedian can beat that? And of course, what he and Shaw had shown us is that words and the intellect can be more powerful and entertaining than on screen action sequences and technical wizardry.


~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples to all of the above 

The Budapest Hotel: A Grand Escape

“But it doesn’t mean anything.”
“So we put in words. One word for every note, like this…”

— ‘Do-Re-Mi’ from The Sound of Music

Does music need words to make it meaningful? Do we have to find a message in a work of art before we can appreciate it?

the-grand-budapest-hotel movie poster

Here we are with a cinematic piece that can’t be ‘explained’. What genre? What theme? What purpose? I’m not going to bother. As with my experience of watching previous Wes Anderson movies, somehow, I feel I need to let my rational side relax and just enjoy the ride. Rushmore probably has more of a traditional storytelling mode and thematic content. But with The Royal Tenenbaums, I have to adjust the quirky frequency to high, it’s a totally different kind of viewing experience. Fantastic Mr. Fox, I was mesmerized by the stop-motion animation and humour, great voices add to the lively adaptation of Roald Dahl’s story. Moonrise Kingdom, I wasn’t fully gratified but by then, I was used to the Wes Anderson style of ‘magical realism’.

That ‘magical realism’ strikes again in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Not my favourite colour palette, red and pink, by I was totally captivated as soon as the film began. I was being led into a fairytale world of real life people. From the cinematic framing, it aptly demonstrates the idea of symmetry. In many frames, the subject is right in the centre, almost perfect symmetry on both sides of the screen. But does it mean anything? One might ask. If we have to be rational about it, shall we just say, for the effects of a neat and tidy piece of the old world. Framing nostalgia before the world becomes too distorted, too inhumane. This is, after all, 1930’s Europe. And we can see the parallels in signs and symbols especially towards the end of the movie when uniformed men take over the Hotel.

Grand Budapest Signs & Symbols

Wes Anderson credits Stefan Zweig in creating The Grand Budapest Hotel. The Austrian writer’s name is shown at the very beginning of the end credits. In numerous interviews, Anderson pays tribute to Zweig’s whole collection of works, a writer who is noted as once ‘the world’s most translated author’. Zweig is a relatively new discovery for Anderson but so deeply has the writer inspired the filmmaker that ‘it’s basically plagiarism’, Anderson joked at the news conference when the film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival.

As someone who is much intrigued by the creative process of adapting books into films, I did read some Zweig before watching Budapest. I must be reading the wrong works though, I’d thought. From the novella Chess Story, to a few of the stories I read in the new collection recently translated into English, all tell very gloomy tales. The writings almost exude a sense of despair, as the characters are mostly running away from persecutions and ethnic cleansing, or memories thereof, even driven to madness as the chess champion Czentovic in Chess Story, albeit some descriptions embed a subtle trace of humour.

Maybe along the notion of ‘Wabi-sabi“, beauty and sadness, what Zweig has done subtly and now Anderson explicitly is to extract and fuse “humor and sadness”. Here in Budapest, writer/director Anderson has freely utilized the element of fantasy and fun to paint the passing of an old world, a realism too sad for millions in 1930’s Europe, Zweig being one of the subsequent victims. To escape the incendiaries of Nazism, Zweig and his second wife moved to England, then to the U.S., and finally to Brazil in 1940 where he ultimately committed suicide together with his wife in 1942, leaving a note of utter despair as he saw Nazism dominating Europe and his former homeland Austria.

In this fictitious Republic of Zubrowka, where The Grand Budapest Hotel is situated, Anderson offers us a great escape despite setting his story within the brewing tension of 1930’s Europe. The story begins with a closer to present day author (Tom Wilkinson) reminiscing upon an extraordinary experience which has inspired his book The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The Concierge Desk and Main Staircase

Years ago when he was still a young writer (Jude Law), in finding cures for writer’s block, he had retreated to a mountain hotel The Grand Budapest and in there met its owner, Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Known as Zero when he  himself was just a lobby boy in an age long passed, the owner told the writer his story of how he came to inherit this grand piece of property, albeit in a run-down shape now. Someone volunteering an extraordinary life story to an author in an exotic locale, the beginning of Budapest reminds me of Life of Pi, another great tale of magical realism.

But the movie belongs to Ralph Fiennes as the hotel Concierge and go-to person for all sorts of favours, M. Gustave. The death of long time patroness of the Hotel Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) has dragged M. Gustave and his protégé, the new lobby boy Zero, down a rabbit hole of misadventures and fortunes. Fiennes has proven that he is a versatile actor that can be as evil as Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List, or as madly romantic as Count Almasy in The English Patient, or as charming and fun here in Budapest. His comic timing is first-rate, his expressions, spot-on. My long-range forecast, an Oscar nom awaits him next year for his role in Budapest.

Gustave & Zero

The line-up of talents is long, not just in acting, where we find the usuals of Wes Anderson movies like Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum. Saoirse Ronan (breakout role as young Briony in Atonement) as Agatha the pastry maker is adroit and whimsical. She’s well matched to the young lobby boy Zero, aptly played by Tony Revolori.

The movie is also marked by the delightful compositions of Alexandre Desplat, whose musical scores adorn many notable movies in recent years. A collaborator with Anderson since Rushmore but here, Desplat’s scores captivated me early on with the lively East European themes and in particular, the Russian folk melodies. Some instruments that we seldom hear in other films are distinctly alluring, such as balalaikas, zithers, dulcimers, and organ, with full orchestral rendering. Another long-range forecast, Oscar for original score.

And then there’s the make-up of Tilda Swinton, the art work and production design of the whole Budapest experience (even the parody painting “Boy with an Apple” is an original art work by English painter Michael Taylor from a real life model), the flowing editing, the original screenplay and directing, the cinematography, Budapest Hotel is going to be one grand entry in the next Academy Awards.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples


Read a related post: How Zweig Inspired Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel

Awards Update:

Feb. 22, 2015: Oscars for Best Costume Design, Make-up, Production Design, Original Score.

Feb. 14, 2015: Wins Best Original Screenplay from WGA.

Feb. 8, 2015: 5 BAFTA wins, Original Screenplay, Original Music, Production Design, Make-up and Hair, Costume Design.

Jan. 15, 2015: 9 Oscar noms, Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Production Design, Make Up and Hair-Styling, Costume Design, Original Score.

Jan. 11, 2015: Golden Globe win for Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical

Dec. 11: 4 Golden Globe noms for Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical, Wes Anderson for Best Director and Best Screenplay, Ralph Fiennes for Best Actor – Comedy or Musical

Dec. 10: SAG nom for Best Cast in a Motion Picture

Dec. 7: The Grand Budapest Hotel wins Best Screenplay and Best Production Design at the L.A. Film Critics Awards

Dec. 1: The Grand Budapest Hotel just wins Best Screenplay from the New York Film Critics Circle

Related Links:

From BBC CULTURE: The Writer Behind Budapest Hotel

From NPR: The Rise and Fall of Stefan Zweig

The Music Behind the Screen

The Untold Story Behind ‘Boy With Apple’

The End of the Affair: Book and Movie

It’s a bit ironic to post this on Valentine’s Day. It’s a story of an extramarital affair, and it doesn’t end well. But then again, maybe this is the best time to talk about it.

This is my second instalment to meet the Graham Greene Challenge hosted by Carrie of Books and Movies. Spoiler Alert here. But since it’s a classic, I’m sure many of you have read it or seen the movie.

The End of the Affair

The book opens with a meeting between novelist Maurice Bendrix and civil servant Henry Miles on a cold, rainy night in 1946 London. Miles’ wife Sarah had ended an affair with Bendrix 18 months earlier. Bendrix has not seen them since. In this chance meeting on the street, Bendrix observes that Miles is heavy-laden, suspecting Sarah has ‘secrets’. Volunteering to hire a detective to tail the wife for the husband, Bendrix is in fact acting out of jealousy, for he too wants to find out who Sarah is seeing now. “Anyone who loves is jealous.”

Again, in just 160 pages, Greene has intricately explored the depth and complexity of the human psyche, love and hate, trust and insecurity, faith and lameness. Yes, the lameness in Bendrix’s leg can well be a metaphor for his numbness of unbelief. Isn’t there such an argument: “If God does not exist, everything is permitted?”

Love with all its smothering, blinding passion, its persistent, burning desire, its all-consuming emotions that distill into pure jealousy and hate… Graham Greene is a master of such incisive descriptions. But here’s the rub, they’re all found in an adulterous affair.

Isn’t that a pity that such intensity of love is often depicted outside of a marriage. Why, we see them all the time in literature and movies. And, don’t we tend to cheer for the romantic heroes and heroines? Guinevere and Lancelot, for example, to whom Bendrix in the book alludes when he talks to the detective Parkis, who has named his son Lance. Readily come to mind are some others: Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and in the epic cinematic versions like The English Patient, in a more restrained way Out of Africa, and the near success in The Bridges of Madison County…  didn’t you wish Meryl Streep would have gone with Clint Eastwood? I’m just thinking, if Ralph Fiennes were the one beckoning her, she’d probably had jumped out of her husband’s truck.

O the fantasy of romance vs. the mundane reality of a marriage. The forbidden fruit seems sweeter, for it arouses excitement, it entices with adventure. Bendrix accuses the oblivious and dull husband Henry Miles as an accomplice in Sarah’s affairs, calling him ‘an eternal pimp’:

“You pimped with your ignorance. You pimped by never learning how to make love with her, so she had to look elsewhere. You pimped by giving opportunities… You pimped by being a bore and a fool…”

There might be some truths in his rants. But then again, are these reasons enough to drive one to discard the marriage vow and seek other allurements? Alas, it seems like boredom is the major impediment to fulfilling that commitment… “If I could love a leper’s sores, couldn’t I love the boringness of Henry?” Sarah tries to reason with herself.

But of course, here, the key is the End of the affair between Bendrix and Sarah. What causes the end is none other than God Himself according to Sarah. A bomb drops near Bendrix’s home while they are both there, striking him dead. Sarah, in her horror and desperation, prays to a God she doesn’t believe to exist, but pleads for the life of her lover just the same. She makes the promise that if God gives Bendrix back his life, she would stop seeing him. As she’s still kneeling by her bed praying, Bendrix walks into the room, injured but very much alive. Thus begins the agony of keeping a promise to a God whose existence now has become an inconvenient truth.

We learn at the end, Sarah has attempted to shift her love from Bendrix to God, albeit with much searing pain. She has gone to a priest and converted to Catholicism. In the crucifix she knows that God Himself is a suffering God too. If only she can see the scale of the pain in the nail-pierced hands in a greater cosmic proportion compared to her own…


The marvellous cinematography, the diffused lighting of many scenes, all work to cast a romantic veil over an adulterous affair. Two Oscar noms in 2000 included one in cinematography and one for Julianne Moore as Sarah Miles. Ralph Fiennes plays Bendrix, a suitable choice. He is in his element. Since The English Patient (1996), Fiennes seems to have mastered the persona of the romantic tragic hero and obsessed lover.

While the screenwriter is understandably free to invent more scenes for the visual storytelling and change some plot points, one alteration I feel  is definitely unacceptable and that’s the character Richard Smythe. In the book, Smythe is an atheist whom Sarah visits several times to discuss views about atheism. Ironically it is Smythe’s atheistic stance that drives Sarah into believing God. She then confides in Father Crompton her wish to convert to Catholicism. But in the film, Smythe is the priest, and what more, he is implied to be another of Sarah’s lovers. I think here is where integrity to the source material should have given priority over dramatic effects.


And what does Colin Firth have to do with The End of the Affair? Well, for all you Colin fans, he is among some A-list stars to have signed with the UK audiobook provider Audible to record their reading of their favorite classic novel.

Audible’s founder, Donald Katz, told the Observer: “Colin Firth could read me the back of a Marmite jar and I would listen.” Well, Colin has chosen, not Marmite or Cornflakes, but for more flavour, Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. CLICK HERE to read the announcement and see what other stars are reading for Audible’s recordings.

Now we have another portal to appreciate Colin, and, another channel to enjoy a Graham Greene book.

Update May 7, 2012: The Audiobook The End of the Affair narrated by Colin Firth is released today.


Cut! Costume and the Cinema: An Exhibit

This is the closest I could get to a movie set. The actual costume worn by prominent screen actors in period movies, that’s the current exhibit “Cut! Costume and the Cinema” at the Glenbow Museum in the centre of Cowtown. Some of the designs had garnered Academy Awards.

Since I could not take any photos inside, this outdoor poster is the only one that I could capture on my camera to give you a sense of what’s in the exhibit: 43 costumes from 25 blockbusters, worn by 30 stars. Mind you, just watching the clothes on headless mannequins is not the same as seeing them on real people with all the set and props you see on screen. So in a way, this is a deconstruction of the magic. However, to have such an exhibition come to Cowtown, I’m excited just the same.

All the items from the exhibition are from the renowned costume house Cosprop of London, England. I learn that for those representing a period before the sewing machine, they have to be hand sewn to reflect authenticity. And due to the cost and labor involved, costumes are usually altered from other existing costumes, seldom are they made from scratch.

Here’s a sample of what I saw, costumes worn by:

Kate Winslet as Marianne Dashwood in “Sense and Sensibility”

Renée Zellweger as Beatrix Potter in “Miss Potter

Emmy Rossum as Christine in “The Phantom of the Opera”

Maggie Smith as Constance Trentham in “Gosford Park”

Vanessa Redgrave as Ruth Wilcox in “Howards End”

Scarlett Johansson as Olivia Wenscombe in “The Prestige”

Colin Farrell as Captain Smith in “The New World”

Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow in “Pirates of the Caribbean”

Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson

Keira Knightly as Georgiana and Ralph Fiennes as the Duke in the Oscar winning costume design of “The Duchess”

… and some others.

But what resonated most with me was that deep turquoise long dress worn by Natasha Richardson as Countess Sofia Belinskya, matching with Ralph Fiennes’s dark green plaid suit jacket in his role as the blind Todd Jackson in “The White Countess.” Looking at the costumes brought back scenes from that movie… the quiet resilience of Sofia, the white countess from Russia, now a refugee in WWII Shanghai, turning a new page in her life with the wounded but passionate ex-diplomat Todd Jackson. Just sad to know she’s no longer with us.


CLICK HERE to an informative video on the exhibit by the Boca Raton Museum of Art in Florida. A 5 min. virtual tour with commentary by Cut! curator Nancy Lawson. 

You may also be interested in these previous posts on Ripple Effects:

Natasha Richardson: Nell and The White Countess

The Merchant Ivory Dialogues

Howards End by E. M. Forster

Miss Potter for Christmas

Austen-inspired Acceptance Speech