The Dig re-imagines the events around a discovery so fabulous it needs no re-imagining – the excavation of the Sutton Hoo hoard. First unearthed in the 1930s, and originally thought to be Viking, the hoard turned out to be much older, Anglo Saxon, and eventually yielded up remarkable treasures made of gold, plus examples of everyday household objects that rewrote our understanding of the time, and perhaps most eye-catching of all, a 6th-century ship, buried in a mound as a funeral barque for its owner.
You don’t actually learn an awful lot about the actual treasures of Sutton Hoo in The Dig, though the skeletal frame of the part-excavated ship acts as a visual anchor, a reminder that the story is about more than the here and now.
Here and now, though, something very familiar is going on. A British drama fuelled by class division, in a Downton Abbey-esque setting.
With her voice at dowager pitch and with an accent so far back it’s a drawl, Carey Mulligan is at the social apex of this tale, playing Mrs Diana Pretty, the owner of a property on which sit several gigantic earth mounds. She and her husband bought the land expressly with a view to excavating them. But Mrs Pretty is now a widow and sick and so has brought in a local man to lead the dig. Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) may not have all the fancy certificates but he does know his stuff. And he’ll work for £2 a week!
Significantly, we have already met Basil, the true hero of this story, a self-taught fount of knowledge who tells Mrs Pretty that the mounds are Viking, possiby older. He’s up against it, though. Digging on his own (at first anyway) into soil likely to collapse back onto the digger, he also has to contend with various posh chaps from one museum or another trying to either take over his dig, have him fired, lure him away or demote him. Mrs Pretty will not hear of it, and maybe that’s as much because she doesn’t like to see her authority challenged as out of loyalty to Basil, we’re never quite sure.
There’s a couple in the 1990s British comedy series The Fast Show called Ted and Ralph, and the running gag is that the British inbred aristocrat Ralph – all PG Wodehouse and tweed – has an unrequited passion for one of his workers, horny handed outdoors-man Ted, but can never negotiate his way beyond the master-servant relationship, though god how he tries. There’s a touch of that in the back and forth between salt-of-the-earth Basil and lady-bountiful Mrs Pretty. But Basil is married, to practical, matronly May (Monica Dolan), while Mrs Pretty, wistful looks to one side, is simply too posh to ever lower her drawbridge to the likes of Basil, or is she? The spirit of Lady Chatterley’s Lover tiptoes through this film.
Moira Buffini’s adaptation of John Preston’s original novel sets up a whole string of these unrequited relationships – enter stage right Lily James as giddy bluestocking Peggy Piggott and her obviously gay husband Stuart (Ben Chaplin) as a pair of helpers on the dig. Enter stage left handsome and clearly available Rory (Johnny Flynn), the dressing-for-dinner nephew of Mrs Pretty.
The Dig isn’t overly interested in Anglo-Saxon boats and knick-knacks in other words, or not nearly as much as it’s interested in the human beings involved. This is what makes it a good film of an old-fashioned sort, one with dramatic structure, technical accomplishment and good acting.
What an achievement Ralph Fiennes’s Basil is. There’s the odd nano-vowel that escapes Fiennes’s East Anglia ooh-aaargh but more than the voice is his entire physical bearing – he looks like a 1930s yokel who both knows his place, because that’s how he was brought up, and is chippy enough to challenge the class structures, and strictures, of his time.
Director Simon Stone has an eye for a flat, wide Suffolk landscape and a fondness, with editor Jon Harris, for scenes where sonically we’re ahead (or behind) the visual action – “Your heart’s lost to this Viking maiden, I can tell,” says Mrs Brown to husband Basil at one point. She’s talking about the boat Basil has unearthed but the camera is lingering in the previous scene, where the blonde-haired Mrs Pretty is giving us her best Viking maiden.
Ten years ago Michael Fassbender would have been in this film, because he was in everything. Johnny Flynn is the Fassbender of our day – dependable, handsome, adaptable and able to suggest that real passion bubbles beneath the frosty upper layer of English decorum.
It’s tempting to see the hoard, the ship, everything excavated as a gigantic metaphor, for passions suppressed, passions unearthed. But passion of every sort – for sex, for love, for learning, for immortality even. There is more going on beneath the surface of The Dig than a quick scrape with trowel can reveal.
The Dig – Buy the original novel that inspired the film at Amazon
I am an Amazon affiliate
© Steve Morrissey 2021