By Richard Roeper
Signal Contributing Writer
Netflix presents a film directed by Simon Stone. Written by Moira Buffini, based on the novel by John Preston. Rated PG-13
If Carey Mulligan’s showstopping performance in the provocative and very much of our times psychological thriller “Promising Young Woman” is the cinematic equivalent of a brilliant electric guitar solo, her work in the low-key, period-
piece Netflix drama “The Dig” is like an unplugged performance — on the opposite end of the spectrum, but still damn good and nearly as resonant.
What a gift we have with this opportunity to appreciate Mulligan’s range in these two films arriving within weeks of each other.
Based on a 2007 novel by John Preston that was inspired by the incredible true story of one of the most significant British archaeological finds ever, “The Dig” maintains a dignified and restrained approach, even when the material gets a little salacious in the form of not one but two “forbidden” romances.
Melodramatic relationship developments aside, this is primarily about the well-off widow Edith Pretty (Mulligan) and the skilled but relatively unschooled excavator and amateur archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), who in 1939 is hired by Edith to poke around the mounds of earth on the property of her house at Sutton Hoo.
With some of the location filming taking place in Suffolk, not far from the actual dig site, director Simon Stone provides splendid visuals — the rolling hills are beautiful, even though it always seems to be raining or about to rain — while the stoic Basil goes about his business, often accompanied by Edith’s precocious young son, Robert (Archie Barnes), who shares Basil’s fascination with astronomy and sees an obvious father figure in this good, solid, upstanding man. For a time, “The Dig” is a quiet little gem of a drama with only a few characters, but after Basil uncovers what appears to be an intact, seventh-
century Anglo-Saxon ship with far-
ranging historical and cultural implications, Sutton Hoo gets quite crowded with new characters and a myriad of subplots, most examining the classism and sexism of the era.
Basil’s former Ipswich Museum employers (Peter McDonald and Paul Ready) try to muscle him aside and claim the discovery, but THEY’RE soon big-footed by the insufferably condescending Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) from the British Museum, who declares the site under the control of Her Majesty’s whatever in the interest of the national cultural whatever, but thanks for your time, Basil!
Meanwhile, Edith’s charismatic and dashing cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn) shows up as if dropped in from a World War II movie; he’s enlisted in the Royal Air Force and can’t wait to be called to duty. And let’s not forget Lily James bringing her sunny presence to the countryside as Peggy, who is married to the young archaeologist Stuart (Ben Chaplin), who seems a lot more interested in hanging with the chaps in the pub after hours than with devoting any marital affection to Lily. And we’re just now getting around to Edith’s persistent chest pains and failing health, uh-oh.
That’s a lot — maybe too much — to be wedged into a story about two fine people in Edith and Basil, who come to form an ironclad friendship after they make an amazing discovery. Of course, they want to share it with the world, and they will share it with the world, but in some ways, it’ll always be their thing and theirs alone.
Netflix presents a film directed by Glendyn Ivin. Written by Shaun Grant and Harry Cripps, based on the book by Cameron Bloom and Bradley Trevor Greive. No MPAA rating.
“Magpie Trainer: PAUL MANDER” — Prominent listing in the closing credits for “Penguin Bloom.”
Can’t remember the last time I saw a credit for a “Magpie Trainer” in a movie, but rest assured, Paul Mander deserves star billing for his behind-the-scenes work in the Netflix original movie “Penguin Bloom,” a three-tissue weeper based on the true story of a family fractured by a horrific accident — and the black-and-white Australian passerine who helped them heal.
In fact, this is one of those “inspired by real life events” movies that would have seemed completely far-fetched (or perhaps based on an illustrated children’s book) were it not for the fact the story is adapted from the best-selling non-fiction book “Penguin Bloom: The Odd Little Bird That Saved a Family,” by Bradley Trevor Greive and Cameron Bloom, the latter of whom wanted to share with the world the initially heartbreaking but ultimately soaring tale of what happened to his family after his wife, Sam, was left paralyzed from the chest down after falling from a hotel balcony in Thailand in 2013.
The invaluable Naomi Watts plays Sam Bloom. When we meet the Blooms, they’re enjoying an idyllic life in a beachside suburb of Sydney in New South Wales, Australia. Sam and her husband, Cameron (Andrew Lincoln from “The Walking Dead”), and their young sons, Noah (Griffin Murray-Johnston), Reuben (Felix Cameron) and Oli (Abe Clifford-Barr) are a close-knit family, but when Sam leans against a railing with rotted wood on that aforementioned hotel roof and falls two stories to the unforgiving ground, she’s left paralyzed and deeply depressed, prone to fits of rage, lashing out at her supportive husband and retreating into herself just when the boys need her the most.
Enter one Penguin Bloom. Of course, the little magpie doesn’t have a name when the eldest son, Noah (who also serves as the narrator for the story), finds him alone on the beach and takes him home. The boys name the magpie “Penguin” because of his black-and-white plumage, but Sam cautions them not to get attached to this bird because he needs to be outside in the world, not confined to home and unable to fly. Hmmmm, can you spot the 800-pound metaphor in the room?
I’ve seen movie pups that don’t have as much personality as Penguin, who is portrayed by eight different magpies (guided by Paul Mander, Magpie Trainer) as he grows up and literally learns to spread his wings and fly. (A little bit of CGI magic is seamlessly sprinkled in here and there.) Director Glendyn Ivin shamelessly but effectively embraces virtually every possible comedic and dramatic possibility, whether Penguin is hopping about the house and knocking things over, getting trapped in a bin of honey (the Blooms are beekeepers, and why not), delighting the boys with his antics or pestering Sam, who at first wants nothing to do with this silly creature but inevitably comes to bond with Penguin in remarkable ways.
“Penguin Bloom” follows the ups and downs of many a movie about a tragedy that nearly destroys someone before resilience and love win the day. Jacki Weaver pops in as the obligatory hovering mother, who nearly smothers Sam with all her fussing and concern but is at heart just a mom who wants her daughter not to give up on life, while Lincoln does steady work in the supportive spouse role, which always comes with that one scene where the partner who wasn’t injured blows up and says this has deeply affected HIM too.
Watts is such a chameleon of an actress, such a pro at slipping into a vast array of roles without drawing attention to the mechanics of her work, that we almost take for granted how damn good she is — and she delivers beautiful and resonant work as Sam. It’s probably not easy to have a magpie as your co-star, even a magpie as amazing as Penguin Bloom.
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