Maroc 7 (1967) ***

With a string of Swinging Sixties fashion models providing the requisite bevy of beauties, a gang of thieves, a Moroccan heist, superb locations, great cast and a touch of archaeology with secret chambers and a long-lost relic thrown in, this splendid espionage frolic proves a welcome return to big screen top billing for Gene Barry after nearly a decade in television in Bat Masterson (1958-1961) and  Burke’s Law (1963-1966).

Something of a cat burglar himself, Simon Grant (Barry) infiltrates a gang which uses fashion as a cover and whose ingenious speciality is to steal famous heirlooms and replace them with fake ones in the assumption that on their departure from a foreign country the customs officers will not be able to tell the difference. Louise Henderson (Cyd Charisse) and Raymond Lowe (Leslie Phillips) head up the gang while Claudia (Else Martinelli) may or may not be in on the act.

Her dalliance with Simon suggests an inclination towards the right side of the law but the fact that she has been involved with the pair for so long sets up the intriguing notion that she is stringing the American agent along. Initially, she rejects Simon’s advances until told by Louise to comply and pump him for information leading to one of the movie’s best lines (and innuendo that a British audience in particular would adore). Says Simon: “We haven’t done much about pumping but maybe that will come later.”  Doubts also surround the intentions of Michelle Craig (Alexandra Stewart).  On their trail is Inspector Barrada (Denholm Elliott).

There is mystery aplenty and a fair quotient of punch-ups, romance, shoot-outs and murder while the unearthing of the hidden treasure is less heist amd more straightforward Indiana Jones. The fashion is the icing on the cake. The Moroccan fashion shoots are more than merely decorative, or an excuse to bare the charms of the gorgeous models. Instead, the shoots would not disgrace Vogue or any of the other glossy magazine temples to haute couture, with that Sixties focus on fabulous clothes, genuine location and outlandish hairstyles.

On top of that, several of the stars are either playing against type or out of their comfort zones. Legendary Hollywood dancer Cyd Charisse famed for such classic musicals as The Bandwagon (1953) and Silk Stockings (1957) sets such fluff aside to essay a criminal mastermind, whose cunning often gets the better of Simon. Leslie Phillips (Crooks Anonymous, 1962), better known as a charming Englishman with an eye for the ladies, is as ruthless a photographer as he is a criminal. Director Gerry O’Hara (The Pleasure Girls, 1965) has managed to get both Phillips and Denholm Elliott to drop their standard methods of delivery, usually embracing a drawl, making their characterisations a good bit more fresh than normal. Phillips was clearly intending to make some kind of career change since he was the producer.

Gene Barry makes a perfect entrance as an adventurer-spy, as confident in his seduction techniques without women falling at his feet like James Bond, with a nice line in self-deprecation and more than able to look after himself. Before being side-tracked by television, Barry had shown movie star potential in War of the Worlds (1953) and Thunder Road (1958) and now he delivers on that earlier promise. Elsa Martinelli (Hatari!, 1962) is the femme fatale who may or may not wish to play that role, keeping the audience completely on edge as to which side of the law she is likely to come down on. Added bonuses are Alexandra Stewart (Only When I Larf, 1968), Angela Douglas (Carry On Screaming!, 1966), Tracy Reed (Hammerhead, 1968), dancer Lionel Blair (A Hard Day’s Night, 1964) and Maggie London.

Ammonite (2020) ****

I came at this picture with some trepidation and in truth only watched it at the cinema because I had seen everything else worth a look in the few weeks since the picture houses have reopened. Although initially attracting Oscar buzz, that failed to materialize when it mattered and it was left out of the Oscar loop. While kate Winslet was a proven commercial box office draw, this appeared to have arthouse sensibilities and the few reviews I had read promised a turgid evening.

The reality was something different and as a result of what I can only describe as the magic of the big screen. Watching a film in a cinema is automatically more involving than on the small screen: there are fewer distractions, the dominating size of the screen is unavoidable and it is dark. Had I watched it at home I could well have switched it off after fifteen minutes in reaction to the slow pace. But in a cinema, slowness did not matter, and until it widened out in the final few scenes it was like an absorbing chamber piece, featuring a handful of characters.  In approach it was closest to a film about an artist, Pollock (2000) and Mr Turner (2014) come to mind, where obsession is the driving force, narrative and plot merely subservient. We are exposed to considerable detail about the character’s archaeological work, which is often filthy and undertaken outside in all sorts of weather, requiring the constitution of a miner or farmer rather than a painter, as well as the patience of a saint to brush, wash or poke clean her discoveries.

Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) was not an attractive personality, downright truculent and rude for the most part, given that she depended for her living on selling the archaeological items she had found in the Lyme Regis area to tourists and collectors. That her major archaeological discoveries resided in the British Museum brought no personal satisfaction because thanks to the male archaeological hierarchy they were presented there under the names of the purchasers rather than the finder. What she earned for major pieces could keep herself and her ageing and infirm mother (Gemma Jones) for a year. By and large, they lived in poverty, existing on soup mostly, the mother at least as obsessive as the daughter with her collection of knick-knacks, one for each of her eight children who had died prematurely, which she washed and polished every day. Mary spurned any male overtures and indeed appeared to resent any friendship, the hint of some kind of betrayal in brief scenes with Elizabeth Philpot (Fiona Shaw), a local worthy.

Mary is hired by wannabe archaeologist Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) to look after his insipid, annoying, depressed wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan). Gradually a friendship forms, leading to desire. Nothing is more illustrative of the Victorian attitude to sex than that the idea of a lesbian relationship ran counter to all imagination. Perhaps one of the more refreshing aspects of the picture is that while Victorian women clearly resented having sex with their husbands that was largely down to the fact the men had no idea how to satisfy a woman. That is not the case here and though the sex scenes have been criticised in places as “too strong” I thought it was essential just to be sure that the women did know what they were doing and clearly derived enormous satisfaction from the sexual act if properly performed. A chaste kiss and cuddle would hardly do justice to the passion suddenly erupted.

While Mary experiences jealousy when Charlotte is entranced by Elizabeth, romance does not produce complete fulfilment and when Charlotte, as if she were a man, appoints herself Mary’s protector that independence for which the archaeologist had fought so hard is imperilled. Love miraculously changes Charlotte’s outward demeanour, the same is not true of Mary.

This isn’t the picture-postcard version of a Victorian seaside town, rather its harsher cousin. Writer-director Francis Lee (God’s Own Country, 2017) refuses to soften the rude edges of life and the best a true romanticist can expect is that the storms occasionally abate and the surf does not pound so heavily.

Powerful roles have been in short supply of late for Kate Winslet (Blackbird, 2019) and she is superb as the stoic woman in a male-dominated world, unable to express passion except in whittling away at pieces of ammonite. Saoirse Ronan (Little Woman, 2019) moves from bitter and confused child-woman to finding joy and from then to taking charge. Veteran British character actors Gemma Jones (Rocketman, 2019) and Fiona Shaw (My Left Foot, 1989) are impressive while James McArdle (Mary, Queen of Scots, 2018) and Alec Secareanu  (Amulet, 2020) offer different interpretations of the entitled male.

To be sure there is no conclusive proof that Mary Anning was this way sexually inclined but in these days of Hollywood reinvention or reimagining for little more than comic-book glory it would be hard not to allow the director some leeway in providing his love story with an interesting backdrop and a fascinating character. At times it is a painful watch, but a rewarding one.

The Dig (2021) **

When stuck in a plot hole, crime writer Raymond Chandler used to send in a new character  with a gun. Director Simon Stone has employed the same concept, minus weaponry. People just keep turning up in The Dig, adding very little to the story, which in itself, setting aside National Trust hype, is on the slim side. A sixth-century Suffolk burial site (thought it does cast new light on the Dark Ages so we are told) is not in the same archeological class as a velociraptor or an Egyptian tomb.  Mostly, we are misled. For the first third it looks like we are heading for Lady Chatterley’s Lover territory with posh lady (Carey Mulligan) eyeing up the digger (Ralph Fiennes) until his wife turns up. Then it looks like it’s going to be a battle royal between Fiennes and the Establishment, but that is headed off.  

It’s 1939 so the Second world War is on its way. Cue the arrival of wannabe pilot (Johnny Flynn). A top archaeologist (Ken Stott) also appears but that doesn’t go anywhere either, bringing with him Ben Chaplin and Lily James fresh from their honeymoon. James gets the hots for Johnny Flynn and there’s just enough time before the credits roll for them to get at it.

This is the kind of film that has money to spend on an old WW2 aeroplane or maybe a CGI version of one but not enough for decent sound recording equipment. Most of the time conversations are over the shoulder or in long shot. It’s not just words, it’s expressions, faces that tell a story, and being denied these seems bizarre. It may be an artistic decision, some critic thought we were being made to “dig” for the story. But it’s hard enough to work up any enthusiasm without being made to work harder.

Ralph Fiennes is excellent, a son of the soil, self-taught, but no shrinking violet either. His scenes with posh lady’s son (Archie Barnes) are very touching, the young lad having invented a whole world for himself. Carey Mulligan just looks as though she’s about to burst into tears, probably wondering how she managed to be talked into playing (at age 34) a woman who was actually 56 at the time of the dig and wishing Nicole Kidman and Cate Blanchett (closer to that age) who were at one point attached had not left her to it.

The dig itself is interesting – but only for about five minutes. We know all we need to know about the boring sifting and brushing and digging from other films and we don’t learn more from this except how easy it is for a wall to suddenly collapse and nearly kill someone.

The most intriguing part of the film came at the end when we discovered that the burial ship dug up was buried for the duration of the war in an Underground station in London. How did they manage that, I wondered. Whereas I didn’t wonder much about anything else in this film.  

https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/81167887