(SPOILERS) An account of the greatest archaeological find Britain would know until Professor Horner opened the barrow at Devil’s End. And should you scoff at such “fiction”, that’s nothing on this adaptation of John Preston’s 2007 novel concerning the Sutton Hoo excavations of the late 1930s. The Dig, as is the onus of any compelling fictional account, takes liberties with the source material, but the erring from the straight and narrow in this case is less an issue than the shift in focus from characters and elements successfully established during the first hour.
Ralph Fiennes’ earthy excavator Basil Brown is a marvellous creation, a man of clear values and straightforward decency, and the actor inhabits him with touching thoroughness often less discernible in his more familiar, starchy establishment types. He’s well matched by Carey Mulligan, underplaying as Edith Pretty, the Suffolk landowner who summons Brown to excavate her estate’s burial mounds (yes, there is a line to the effect that he “should leave Mrs Pretty’s mounds well alone” RA-HA-HA).
Mulligan has a more difficult task than Fiennes, about two decades too young for Pretty and serviced with a screenplay from Moira Buffini that finds any and every opportunity to play up her ill health and sense of loss – she would die in 1942, three years after the period depicted, and her husband died five years prior in 1934 – such that characters are called on to offer her shallow homilies every five minutes. There’s even a scene where her young son Archie (Robert Pretty) is required to break down and wail “When my father died everyone said I had to look after my mother now. And I failed. I failed”. Failed, dammit. I mean, Olivier would have struggled with that one in his prime, let alone when he was nine.
One would have thought there was sufficient material to mine by maintaining focus on these two, what with Brown spending two seasons excavating the site (1938, then 1939). That, and an additional mound involved, prior to discovering the ship that heralds Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) and the British Museum’s arrival, upon which they take over the dig. I’d suggest The Dig didn’t need Edith taking a romantic interest in Basil (Fiennes plays his side with sufficient inscrutability that one might reasonably assume he was quite rightly unconvinced by the notion). This is only the least egregious example. Unfortunately, every device called upon to punch up the material is an obvious one and tends to strike the wrong note. Phillips, for example, screams “villain by numbers” introduced as he is behaving like a massive wanker towards Brown.
And it’s a shame. Because The Dig works a treat when director Simon Stone, in concert with cinematographer Mike Eley and composer Stefan Gregory, is left to concentrate on the gentle countryside ambience. Brown’s methodical methods and his interaction with Edith and Robert play naturally and without a sense of undue puppeteering. Yes, there’s an unlikely cave-in to scream “Drama!”, and probably one too many instances of Basil showing up at Edith’s door with a persuasive “I think you’d better come and see”, but Stone has the essential measure of the lure of discovery, and it would be enough to let that unfold naturalistically.
But Preston, or Buffini, or both, goes wrong when Brown’s relegation from leading the dig also relegates him from lead character status. So at the halfway stage, Peggy Piggot (Lily James) and hubby Stuart (Ben Chaplin) arrive to get stuck in. Peggy was Preston’s aunt, so if he was disrespectful to the idea that Edith and Brown weren’t secretly longing to rut with each other, he’d surely have drawn the line with family. Not a chance. James, who is going all out to make herself the current queen of English period dramas, on both the big screen (Darkest Hour, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Rebecca and er Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and small (Downton Abbey, War & Peace), could probably be mixed and matched in ineffectually with most of those parts. She’s likeable as an inexperienced archaeologist married to a much older, gayer husband (Peggy wasn’t inexperienced, Stuart wasn’t much older, and as far as we know he wasn’t gay either) who, on realising hubby’s love that dares not speak its name, has a fling with Edith’s cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn). Rory, who didn’t even exist.
Since this culminates, or climaxes, with the pair copulating in some ruins, I believe you could claim Preston and Buffini well and truly sexed up The Dig. Nothing about this trio of characters justifies such liberties, as the plotline is feeble and furtive. Flynn and Chaplin are good actors, but they’re armed with limited material here. The idea that Peggy and Stuart wouldn’t actually come out and say what was coming between them might be marked as a measure of fidelity to the times, were it not for Stuart’s outrageous flirting with a fellow dig member (“Sorry to take him away from you” Eamon Farren’s Brailsford cheekily apologises when he and Stuart mooch of on a day trip together). Mostly, however, you’re left wondering how the decent heritage drama you started watching turned into a tepid ménage-a-trois.
If you assumed that was enough invention to be getting on with, you assumed wrong. There’s also a crashed plane – brave Rory, soon to get his call-up papers dives in the drink to recover the body – because the brooding atmosphere of imminent war simply isn’t enough. The strangest thing is the opportunities missed. Edith’s interest in spiritualism is touched upon – probing Brown for insights into the other side when he returns from his spell beneath the earth – but much more could have been made of it, given her relationship with faith healer William Parish and having sent Brown to a medium (who gave him some accurate advice). And then there’s the inquest deciding who owns the treasure, which bizarrely takes place off screen. This was surely an ideal chance for Brown to reclaim the spotlight, since he gave evidence that the finds should be considered Pretty’s property. We also see that Brown and his wife (Monica Dolan) struggling to make ends meet, yet there’s no mention that he also worked as an insurance agent and special constable to earn a living (presumably, any further focus on Brown would have impinged on Peggy getting her rocks off).
Much is also made of Basil being right about his hunch that the site is Anglo-Saxon, rather than Viking as Phillips initially believes, and it might have been interesting had more been made of the authenticity or otherwise of dating methods (much more interesting than Stuart Piggott’s overwhelming gayness is that he would later dispute the accuracy of radiocarbon, overturning as it did his own widely accepted chronology of the British Isles; invariably, it’s when history has been set most firmly in stone that we’d be advised to nurse suspicions of its bona fides).
The Dig has been nominated for five BAFTAs including Best (sorry, Outstanding) British Film. In some ways, it makes you long for the Merchant Ivory pedigree – not that I could ever openly endorse such a thing – whereby productions were at least lent a degree of genuine period rigour. As opposed to otherwise decent pictures dictated to by quadrant markers. Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan are very good here. It’s just a shame they’re only half the film. Did I dig The Dig? Yeah, it’s alright.