THE DIG*** Shallow

THE DIG (NETFLIX) is a pleasant enough movie, lifted by the outstanding performances of its two principals, Ralph Fiennes and Cary Mulligan, both of whom manage to transform a pedestrian script into something human and worthwhile.

The story, set in 1938 with Britain’s entry into war looming, is that of the remarkable discovery of the Sutton Hoo treasures. This was a precious cache of funerary gold found in the hull of a well preserved, long buried Saxon vessel; it must have been the tomb of an important person, having been dragged overland to this site on the property of Edith Perry, one of the landed gentry. Based on her hunch that there must be something buried under the vast, bulbous midden on her land, Perry hires Basil Brown, a salt of the earth working man descended from a neighbouring family of layman excavators.

It’s a ‘true’ story, so the writers were understandably modest in wringing too many deep insights from the events. This didn’t stop them from dusting the tale with a mish-mash of ideas, as if the reality of excavation was the starting signal to delve into the arty excavations of the human heart.

The thematic links between the fact that Sutton Hoo was a burial site, that Perry was dying and that the war, with its promise of death was about to begin, are suggested, but (mercifully) treated with restraint.

Actor/writer/director Simon Stone leans in more heavily on the idea of the past as just one point in a thread of the tapestry of who ‘we’ are, as a nation and as individuals. To this there is a (be-laboured) perspective that the discovery of the past (and therefore of ourselves) is akin to the wider dimension of discovery …of new worlds, of the future.

But, at its heart, the story squeezes to the fullest the social clash between the untrained working class excavator and the trained, snooty professionals who descend like locusts on the discovery (and who never gave him the credit he deserved). The class snobbery is underlined by the contrast with the genuine connectedness between the working man Brown and his rich employer, Perry. It’s the familiar upstairs/downstairs and quintessentially British divide that’s a must-have for any costume drama.

Add to this a sub-plot of passions unearthed and revealed between two of the excavators (Lily James as Peggy and Johnny Flynn as Rory) and what we’re offered is a thoroughly watchable, good looking, well-crafted, but thoroughly cliched piece of forgettable entertainment.

THE DIG. Dir: Simon Stone. Writers: Moira Buffini (Harlots, Jane Eyre, Tamara Drewe) from the novel by John Preston. With: Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James, Johnny Flynn (Emma, Vanity Fair), Ben Chaplin. Cinematpgrapher: Mile Eley (My Cousin Rachel); Production designer: Maria Djurkovic (Red Sparrow, Gold, The Imitation Game)


THE WHITE TIGER, adapted from Aravind Adiga’s book and with a screenplay by its director, Ramin Bahrani, is a fast-paced, thoroughly compelling tale of ambition, fate, prejudice, caste divisions and murder in an India where breaking through the glass ceiling of caste is akin to social anarchy

The story centers on that of Balram, a young slum-dweller kid, bright enough to be called a white tiger (i.e: exceptional and rare). As the metaphor of caged chickens awaiting their slaughter suggests, his fate – due to his lowly class, not his innate talent – is to forever be caged awaiting ‘slaughter’. It is not a fate he is willing to accept. As his way out of poverty, Balram hustles his way into becoming the lead driver for a rich family. It’s some progress. Just. For though he may drive their cars, he’s really just a servant from whom selfless obeisance is expected.

The narrative arc follows Balram’s journey out of the cage of his own servile sense of self – the role imposed on him by tradition – to some measure of self-worth and success.

And what a journey it is! The story lodges Balram – naive and dedicated, but wily and independent-minded – at the centre of a deep-rooted culture clash; one between rich and poor, class and caste, tradition and modernity, India and the rest of the world.

It’s a wonderful piece of story-telling: Director Ramin Bahrani (Fahrenheit 451) immerses us in the contrasting worlds of five star hotel suites and one-room squalor with a cast of nicely realized characters (which lifts them above their symbolic roles) from the traditionalist pater-familias, Ashok (Rajkumar Rao) to his modern American-Indian daughter-in-law, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra-Jonas). He deftly balances the private intimacy of a slum-born boy (brilliantly realized by Adarsh Gourav) making his way upward (the metaphor of the chauffeur as mobility) against a wall of prejudice, and the bigger themes of a country’s fight to emerge from the inhibitions of its inherited values…all with energy and wit.

Thanks you Netflix

THE WHITE TIGER. Dir: Ramin Bahrani. Writers: Aravind Adiga (book) and Ramin Bahrani (screenplay). With: Adarsh Gourav, Rajkumar Rao, Priyanka Chopra-Jonas. Cinematographer: Paolo Carnera. Production Designer: Chad Keith


I’D BRAVED THE plague for Tenet; and what a waste of time that stab of bravery was. The other movie I was prepared to don mask and PPE gear to see was Wonder Woman 1984. The first WW launched Gal Gadot blazing across the superhero screen like a comet: sexy, confident, funny, naive, unbeatable; a script wrritten with that mix of self-awareness and swagger. (So what if it wasn’t a movie that bore repeat viewing well. No matter, I was a convert.)

Finally, thanks to Amazon Prime, and the £15.50 price of rental, I could finally by-pass the virus and settle in for the stirring comfort food of Gal/Diana Prince/Wonder Woman Part 2.

It’s a sloppy mess. This dull, eight-hour movie, with its exciting highlights of WW flying in the clouds, over and over and over again… that is, when she wasn’t moping about in love with her long dead lover (Chris Pine: a pretty mannequin who was even less engaging than his first time outing) slipped into every tired cliché the first one had managed to avoid.

The story re-acquaints us with Diana sixty years after we first met. She’s become a cut-rate, low-rent super-hero, down-graded from the energy and drama of the raging battlefield to fighting off second-rate crooks in a shopping mall.

And it pretty much stays at that mundane suburban level.

The writers try to gussy up things with the hammiest of hammy bad guys (A tortured performance from Mandalorian, Pedro Pascal) who has unleashed chaos on a world hooked on the drug of wishful thinking; a world redeemed only through Truth and Love. And sacrifice. And Moral Fiber. And (insert your own homily here)

It’s the superhero as YA teen romance WITH A MORAL.

WW emerged from the shadows as the mysterious ‘other’ to a dueling Batman and Superman.

Time to revert to those shadows. May she find love, happiness and a white picket fence.

WONDER WOMAN 1984. Dir: Patty Jenkins. Writers: Geoff Johns (TV: The Flash). Screenplay: Johns, Patty Jenkins and Dave Callaham (Zombieland: Double Tap). With Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristin Wiig and Pedro Pascale

ENTHUSIASMS: Roger Robinson

A few weeks ago, the BBC aired a five-part drama, Small Axe, written and directed by Oscar winner Steve McQueen. The drama focused on the lives and life of the West Indian community in a hostile Britain in the 70’s. Roger Robinson is an Anglo Trinidadian, whose tremendous second book of poetry, A Portable Paradise focuses on the same community now, fifty years later. And, surprise! Nothing has changed. The government has with fanfare and pride boasted of creating a “hostile environment”; many of that generation of West Indians back in those 60’s and 70’s were the ones forcibly repatriated a few years ago to lands most were unfamiliar with; and the same systemic, government-encouraged racism still shapes the eco-system of their lives

A Portable Paradise examines this eco-system. The poems often seethe with anger, restrained only by the tempering nuance of the craft and buoyed up by the performance vigour of Robinson’s spoken word style.

One early poem, written a year before George Floyd, in a form that’s almost haiku, is expressive of the anger: It’s called Beware

When police place knees

at your throat, you may not live

to tell of choking.

The book is anchored by two pillars: one evokes the tragedy of Grenfell Tower (where, for those who may not be aware, eighty people, mainly poorer, black and immigrant were burnt to death in a fire that spread as a result of criminal neglect and government indifference) and the other, the idea of British citizenship in a country busy with forced repatriations.

The end of the poem, Haibun For the Lookers (“haibun” is the name that’s given to poetry that’s a mash-up of classical poetry, spoken word, prose and haiku), Robinson describes the onlookers, facing the inflamed tower, with…

“their faces illuminated by the glow of fire-ash floating gently down…then a flaming fire-snake slides its way from the fourth floor straight to the top…”

There’s a mythic premise (Note the reference to the fire-snake or Satan or flames of hell) that recognises no presence of help, just the terrible, almost painterly spectacle of the illuminated on-lookers “imagining their settees in flames, their orange floral wallpaper bubbling up and bursting like blisters”

The reality is so harsh, the poem almost has to hide its face and re-imagine the moment through subtler images, such as the blistering settees; as if the mention of people, of flesh, is too much to bear, too melodramatic.

Initially the inhabitants are visible only as … “shadows [that] wave makeshift flags”. These shadows re-appear as “…the swan dive of a few bodies.”

Finally, the delicate peacefulness of the opening image of “fire-ash floating gently down” and the shadowy bodies, are all brought together and repeated at the gut-wrenching end:

As for the onlookers, whose numbers have swelled, this is what they’ll remember: the floating ash and flaming debris, bodies in flight and bodies in shadow, the smoke leaving discreetly into the night sky, clouds at night and the snake, the giant snake of flaming fire.

The heat at my back,

I throw my baby out of the window.

Catch him, Lord!

He offers three poems on the theme of the (West Indian/British) citizen. In Citizen I, the poet revisits the Windrush explusions, from a perspective of the deep feeling of betrayal and loss felt by the West Indian community.

So, after slavery, colonialism, two world-wars,

teddy boys, skinheads, rivers of blood speech,

neo- nazis, thatcher, 3 kids…

…a small pension,

Now you want to send me home

There is the attempt to recapture that moment when the scales drop from the eyes; that moment when the awful reality of the Mother Country reveals itself, when truth finally replaces wishful thinking.

Truth is you were always planning my departure,

from the moment I walked down the gangplank,

freestyling “London is the Place for Me…

…From the slaveships to world wars,

to the underground and the hospitals, it’s always

been about the labour, never about the living”

The poem winds down not with anger, but tears; the tears of the rejected child orphaned into a kind of statelessness with the full realization that the relationship was purely one-sided and transactional

…How can you be banished

from your own home? Congratulations.

You fooled us. Render your work, not your lives”

But for the poet escape/resilience/strength comes from those portable paradises; those moments and memories and talismans that bolster the spirit and that, perhaps, matter more than the loss, the rejection, the hostility:

And if I speak of Paradise,

then I’m speaking of my grandmother

who told me to carry it always

on my person, concealed,

so no one else would know but me

Shine the lamp on it like the fresh hope

of morning, and keep staring at it till you sleep