News of the World and The Dig: Two slow films for a fast-paced culture

I’ve seen a lot of films lately, but two have stuck out for their amazingly slow pace. One is the new(ish) Tom Hanks film, News of the World. The second is a new Netflix film starring Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes, called The Dig. Neither is great, but both are good, and worth it for those who have the attention span or enjoy the respite from dizzying fight scenes and special effects.

News of the World is a Western (yes, TH in a Western). The plot is simple: Hanks is a Civil War veteran who agrees to deliver a young girl to her aunt and uncle after being captured and living with Kiowa people for years; along the way, he makes his living by reading the news to folks out in the frontier with little access to real news. It’s basically a road trip with wagons and horses. My wife and I were able to see it in the theater, and the film’s gorgeous images, which ranged between lovingly lit night close-ups and stunning daytime long shots of the terrain, went a long way to keeping the film moving along. Hanks is fine, as usual, with a performance that is understated and similar to his work in Road to Perdition. The real find, though, is the young girl, played by young German actress Helena Zengel, who already has Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations for it, and will likely receive an Oscar nomination for her work here.

The pace is surprising as it’s from director Paul Greengrass, who gave us The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum, Jason Bourne, Flight 93, and Captain Phillips, all of which had a great deal of quick editing and nervous energy.  Nothing like that here. The simple ride from A to Z is interrupted a few times, as you might imagine, and that, as they say, livens up the proceedings a bit. There are a few quiet surprises along the way as well, but it all ends up with things falling into place as we wanted all along. The story seemed a bit lean to me, and the interruptions quite predictable. But watching Hanks at work is nearly always a joy, and his co-star is headed for stardom at some point, perhaps soon. Seeing her early work here is like getting in on a secret. If you’re in the mood (spoiler alert) for a good movie with a lovely happy ending, this one’s for you.

The Dig is even more slowly paced than News of the World. It’s based on a true story of an archeological dig in a British town in 1938, and is playing solely on Netflix. The area is owned by an Edith Pretty (Mulligan), who hires Basil Brown (Fiennes) to excavate on her property in the hopes of locating something of historical interest. There are many other subplots, a few of which are completely invented (why do people do that in a true story!?). Characters are made up, and relationships that never happened are shown. But joy of the film is in the development of its plot and in the acting of two greats, Fiennes and Mulligan. Unfortunately, there is one major problem with casting Mulligan, one of the great actors of her generation in the part. She is supposed to be 56, and Brown, 51. Mulligan is 35 and Fiennes is 57, which throws off some of the film’s dynamics at times.  Edith Pretty was supposed to have been played by both Cate Blanchett and Nicole Kidman at some point, but even with the problem with the ages, I’ll take a performance by Mulligan any day.

This might be Mulligan’s year. She is already being nominated by many associations for her leading performance in Promising Young Woman, which is about as opposite in tone and characterization as possible from The Dig. In the former, she plays an American with serious issues on a path of revenge. Here, she plays a quiet Englishwoman who is struggling with health issues while trying to be a good mother, a good steward of her property, and a caring boss to her hired excavators. It’s a quiet performance, but a powerful one. It’s expressed in body language, facial expression, and what’s behind the eyes.

Fiennes is nearly as good, as well as just as quiet as Mulligan. Watching the two of them together is a treat.

The weaknesses in the film lie in the extra characters that are introduced to add romance, tension, and sex. Gratuitous is probably the best word for it, though distracting and useless might also be applicable.

So for those who would like a respite from action or superhero movies, who enjoy stories that are drawn out for your enjoyment, and who appreciate topnotch acting, these two are for you.

About Mark DuPré

Retired (associate) pastor at a Christian church. Retired film professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. Husband for 45+ years to the lovely and talented Diane. Father to three children and father-in-law to three more amazing people. I continue some ministry duties even though retired from the pastoral position. Right now I'm co-writing a book, working on a documentary (screenwriter and assistant director), and creating a serious musical drama (I am writing the book and lyrics).
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