Skip to main content

It's Dark Age, by Jupiter!

The Dig
(2021)

(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.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Maybe he had one too many peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) (SPOILERS) The kind of movie that makes your average Tarantino knockoff look classy, 3000 Miles to Graceland is both aggressively unpleasant and acutely absent any virtues, either as a script or a stylistic exercise. The most baffling thing about it is how it attracted Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, particularly since both ought to have been extra choosy at this point, having toplined expensive bombs in the previous half decade that made them significantly less bankable names. And if you’re wondering how this managed to cost the $62m reported on Wiki, it didn’t; Franchise Pictures, one of the backers, was in the business of fraudulently inflating budgets .

White nights getting to you?

Insomnia (2002) (SPOILERS) I’ve never been mad keen on Insomnia . It’s well made, well-acted, the screenplay is solid and it fits in neatly with Christopher Nolan’s abiding thematic interests, but it’s… There’s something entirely adequateabout it. It isn’t pushing any kind of envelope. It’s happy to be the genre-bound crime study it is and nothing more, something emphasised by Pacino’s umpteenth turn as an under-pressure cop.

You absolute horror of a human being.

As Good as it Gets (1997) (SPOILERS) James L Brooks’ third Best Picture Oscar nomination goes to reconfirm every jaundiced notion you had of the writer-director-producer’s capacity for the facile and highly consumable, low-cal, fast-food melodramatic fix with added romcom lustre. Of course, As Good as it Gets was a monster hit, parading as it does Jack in a crackerjack, attention-grabbing part. But it’s a mechanical, suffocatingly artificial affair, ponderously paced (a frankly absurd 139 minutes) and infused with glib affirmations and affections. Naturally, the Academy lapped that shit up, because it reflects their own lack of depth and perception (no further comment is needed than Titanic winning the big prize for that year).

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984) If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delights  may well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box ’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisi

I must remind you that the scanning experience is usually a painful one.

Scanners (1981) (SPOILERS) David Cronenberg has made a career – albeit, he may have “matured” a little over the past few decades, so it is now somewhat less foregrounded – from sticking up for the less edifying notions of evolution and modern scientific thought. The idea that regress is, in fact, a form of progress, and unpropitious developments are less dead ends than a means to a state or states as yet unappreciated. He began this path with some squeam-worthy body horrors, before genre hopping to more explicit science fiction with Scanners , and with it, greater critical acclaim and a wider audience. And it remains a good movie, even as it suffers from an unprepossessing lead and rather fumbles the last furlong, cutting to the chase when a more measured, considered approach would have paid dividends.

You seem particularly triggered right now. Can you tell me what happened?

Trailers The Matrix Resurrections   The Matrix A woke n ? If nothing else, the arrival of The Matrix Resurrections trailer has yielded much retrospective back and forth on the extent to which the original trilogy shat the bed. That probably isn’t its most significant legacy, of course, in terms of a series that has informed, subconsciously or otherwise, intentionally or otherwise, much of the way in which twenty-first century conspiracy theory has been framed and discussed. It is however, uncontested that a first movie that was officially the “best thing ever”, that aesthetically and stylistically reinvigorated mainstream blockbuster cinema in a manner unseen again until Fury Road , squandered all that good will with astonishing speed by the time 2003 was over.

How do you melt somebody’s lug wrench?

Starman (1984) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s unlikely SF romance. Unlikely, because the director has done nothing before or since suggesting an affinity for the romantic fairy tale, and yet he proves surprisingly attuned to Starman ’s general vibes. As do his stars and Jack Nitzsche, furnishing the score in a rare non-showing from the director-composer. Indeed, if there’s a bum note here, it’s the fairly ho-hum screenplay; the lustre of Starman isn’t exactly that of making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but it’s very nearly stitching together something special from resolutely average source material.

Remember. Decision. Consequence.

Day Break (2006) (SPOILERS) Day Break is the rare series that was lucky to get cancelled. And not in a mercy-killing way. It got to tell its story. Sure, apparently there were other stories. Other days to break. But would it have justified going there? Or would it have proved tantalising/reticent about the elusive reason its protagonist has to keep stirring and repeating? You bet it would. Offering occasional crumbs, and then, when it finally comes time to wrap things up, giving an explanation that satisfies no one/is a cop out/offers a hint at some nebulous existential mission better left to the viewer to conjure up on their own. Best that it didn’t even try to go there.

We got two honkies out there dressed like Hassidic diamond merchants.

The Blues Brothers (1980) (SPOILERS) I had limited awareness of John Belushi’s immense mythos before  The Blues Brothers arrived on retail video in the UK (so 1991?) My familiarity with SNL performers really began with Ghostbusters ’ release, which meant picking up the trail of Jake and Elwood was very much a retrospective deal. I knew Animal House , knew Belushi’s impact there, knew 1941 (the Jaws parody was the best bit), knew Wired was a biopic better avoided. But the minor renaissance he, and they, underwent in the UK in the early ’90s seemed to have been initiated by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, of all things; Everybody Needs Somebody was part of their That Sounds Good to Me medley, the first of their hits not to make No.1, and Everybody ’s subsequent single release then just missed the Top Ten. Perhaps it was this that hastened CIC/Universal to putting the comedy out on video. Had the movie done the rounds on UK TV in the 80s? If so, it managed to pass me by. Even bef

You cut my head off a couple of dozen times.

Boss Level (2021) (SPOILERS) Lest you thought it was nigh-on impossible to go wrong with a Groundhog Day premise, Joe Carnahan, in his swaggering yen for overkill, very nearly pulls it off with Boss Level . I’m unsure quite what became of Carnahan’s early potential, but he seems to have settled on a sub-Tarantino, sub-Bay, sub-Snyder, sub-Ritchie butch bros aesthetic, complete with a tin ear for dialogue and an approach to plotting that finds him continually distracting himself, under the illusion it’s never possible to have too much. Of whatever it is he’s indulging at that moment.