The Dig

Basil on the sofa, Mrs Pretty kneeling on the floor

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.

The Anglo Saxon ship emerges
The Anglo Saxon ship emerges

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

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© Steve Morrissey 2021


Johnny Flynn


Stardust, echoing the title of his most consequential album, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, charts the journey of David Bowie from washout – the big 1969 hit Space Oddity not having led on to greatness – to the moment he became the David Bowie of legend.

Gabriel Range’s film pegs that moment as being when Bowie first stepped on stage in 1972 with his new band, the Spiders from Mars, though fans will rightly point out that the decisive shift actually came with the previous album, Hunky Dory, in particular the song Queen Bitch, a moment of arch Ziggy-ness inspired by Lou Reed.

But, fanboy grumbles to one side, let’s talk about the film – in 1971 on the verge of being finished Bowie is sent on a solo promo tour of America by his manager, encouraged by his pregnant wife Angie (Jena Malone), only to find on arrival that the cool reception at immigration is matched by the attitude of Mercury Records.

There is no limo, there is no tour, just Ron (Marc Maron), a hack publicist. Off the two head on their “tour” – a convention of vacuum cleaner salesmen here, a strait-laced radio station there, with the enthusiastic (“I believe in you”) Ron promising to get David on the cover of Rolling Stone, though David, withdrawn, fey, insecure, sarcastic, superior, diffident seems determined to sabotage any interview by playing the awkward artist card, even though he is desperate to be a star.

One of the things his interviewers want to know is what Bowie’s most recent album – The Man Who Sold the World – is “about”, in particular the single, All the Madmen. And Bowie is particularly reluctant to tell them because his brother, Terry, is currently buzzing away on a cocktail of drugs inside a mental institution, the latest of the singer’s relations to come down with what his mother calls “the family curse”.

As the 1970s warmed up and drinkers in 1960s music’s last chance saloon piled into glam rock, pop music fell prey to the “builders in eyeliner” syndrome. It didn’t afflict Bowie. Though Johnny Flynn, who plays Bowie here, does have mild symptoms. Flynn is not androgynous enough to mimic Bowie’s gender-bending style – on the cover of Hunky Dory Bowie poses as a Hollywood goddess (on The Man Who Sold the World he’s in a dress). Director Gabriel Range seems to have decided to make it a bit of a theme – in this film Bowie’s rival, the elfin Marc Bolan (James Cade), also looks more like someone more familiar with the coal lorry than the faerie glade.


Johnny Flynn as David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust
David Bowie introduces the world to Ziggy Stardust


But in spite of all that angular masculinity, Flynn is very good as Bowie, a charmless, self-absorbed, uncertain and silly man and a bit of a dick. A lot of a dick in fact, especially in his dealings with Ron, who is a decent guy and who, in conversations with Bowie leads him to his breakthrough thought – ditch rock’s obsession with authenticity and embrace parody and theatricality. Abandon any idea of being a rock star and instead play the role. Stardust.

Why is publicist Ron a man in his 50s when the publicist he’s based on was more Bowie’s age – 20s? Why are the two Rolling Stone journalists we see middle aged men, when Rolling Stone back then was a youth operation? Bowie’s manager, Tony Defries, was under 30 at the time. He’s a chunk older here.

Though this is only a snit, and Maron in particular is excellent as the enthusiastic but careworn Ron, the age issue is bizarre. Wouldn’t the film have more appeal to a young audience if it spoke in that “very heaven to be alive” voice of, say, Almost Famous? Or perhaps Range is using the actors’ age to suggest the general dowdiness of the era.

Fans, be aware, there is no Bowie music here – the estate said no – instead, as in the Hendrix film All Is by My Side, we have a few songs that Bowie covered (Brel, The Yardbirds), a Bowie-esque tune penned by Flynn and Anne Nikitin’s pastiche-y soundtrack plugging the gaps.

If this had been a Rocket Man or Bohemian Rhapsody, that might be problem. But it isn’t and it isn’t. Because this is a portrait of a pre-fame star coming up with his own fake-it-till-you-make-it strategy.

Very funny here and there, more fascinated than awed by its subject, it’s a very good film about an all-too-flawed character. And in being about a human being rather than a starman it’s really going to infuriate the self-appointed keepers of the flame.


Stardust – Watch it/but it at Amazon


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© Steve Morrissey 2020