Review: Fiennes and Mulligan shine in Sutton Hoo movie, The Dig
- Credit: LARRY HORRICKS/NETFLIX © 2021
The Dig; dir: Simon Stone; starring: Ralph Fiennes, Carey Mulligan, Lily James, Johnny Flynn, Ben Chaplin, Ken Stott, Archie Barnes, Monica Dolan; BBC Films/Netflix; released on Netflix on January 29.
The Dig is a love story, a film full of passion and power but it’s not a conventional love story about romantic love between people but more of a shared desire to shed some light on the romance of the past. It’s the story of not only the discovery of the Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo but the powerful bond that sprang up between the landowner Mrs Edith Pretty and the crusty Basil Brown, the semi-professional archaeologist, she employed to reveal what was buried in a trio of ancient mounds nestled in the corner of one of her fields.
We know now how important the find was, the first complete, intact ship burial found in the UK, and now believed to be the final resting place of King Raedwald, king of the East Angles and possibly overlord to a more united England. What, is frequently forgotten, and clearly shown in The Dig, is what a race against time the excavation was, as the ship was uncovered during the run-up to the outbreak of the Second World War.
News broadcasts and Spitfire training flights, from nearby Martlesham Heath aerodrome, provide the tension of a ticking clock as Basil and the team scrape away the earth to reveal a dazzling imprint of a Saxon sailing vessel wonderfully preserved in the sandy soil.
What makes The Dig so special is that director Simon Stone knows that the true story is powerful enough on its own and doesn’t need lots of ‘false drama’ to spice things up. The characters and events are more than enough to sweep the audience along and make the two hour running time disappear in the blink of an eye.
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The Dig is a film about characters – there’s Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown, Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty, Lily James as young archaeologist Peggy Preston (on whose book the film is based) and Johnny Flynn as Mrs Pretty’s nephew Rory, who is about to join the RAF and falls for the beguiling Peggy.
But, the Suffolk landscape is also an important character in the film. It provides the film with a sense of place – it anchors the action to where the events actually happened – both now, in the Dark Ages and in the summer of 1939.
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Although, Simon Stone was unable to shoot at Sutton Hoo itself, he did shoot 80% of the film nearby at Snape, Iken, Butley and in Rendlesham Forest. Ipswich Museum gets a bit part as itself and the River Deben was shot briefly at Ramsholt but mostly at Butley Creek.
The excavation of the mounds was brilliantly recreated in Surrey and I defy anyone to spot the join between the two locations. It is so well done that you can feel a tingle of excitement as the ship gets uncovered and the treasures start coming to light.
The first half of the film is largely a two-hander between posh Mrs Pretty and down-to-earth Suffolk son-of-the-soil Basil Brown. She engages him in a private capacity to discover what lies beneath the ancient tumuli after Ipswich Museum turn down her request because they are busily trying to finish excavating a Roman villa at Castle Hill, Ipswich, before war breaks out.
What develops over that summer is a strong friendship which manages to overcome the social barriers which existed at the time. She convinces him that she has a true love of history and is not just a treasure-seeker while he demonstrates to her that while he may not have the academic qualifications, he is more than capable of running this hugely significant dig.
Carey Mulligan may be 20 years too young to match the real Mrs Pretty but nevertheless she delivers a totally engaging performance that commands your attention and really wins you over. She gives Mrs Pretty a sense of vulnerability and a humanity which sets her apart from the ‘Downton Abbey’ upper-class types that usually inhabit these roles.
Ralph Fiennes provides the real star turn as Basil Brown though. He looks and sounds just like the man himself – if you have visited the Sutton Hoo exhibition and seen photos and heard recordings of him you’ll know what I mean.
Suffolk voice expert Charlie Haylock coached Ralph and as a dialogue tutor and the result of their endeavours is a thing of beauty. Charlie ‘Suffocated’ the script, putting straight dialogue into the Suffolk idiom and the film now sounds natural and believable.
Lily James and Johnny Flynn come more to the fore in the second half of the film as the British Museum, led by Ken Stott’s over-bearing professor, arrive to take over the excavation work but their story is more of a sub-plot than revealing anything more about the central story.
James is engaging as the academically qualified young archaeologist but who is hired because she has a slight build and the portly professor believes that she can therefore excavate the interior of the ship without causing much damage but her relationship with Rory provides a reminder that war is coming.
Nevertheless, this is Fiennes and Mulligan’s film and both give thoughtful performances in a very thoughtful film. It’s a film about life and death and reflects on our own sense of mortality. As Basil explains: you never truly die because when you dig up an artefact, the past is speaking directly to you.
The only niggle I have is that I would liked a post-script, perhaps over the end titles, which allowed you to see the treasures all cleaned up, and perhaps a brief caption putting the find into some kind of historical context.
The Dig is a total treat, a glorious slice of Suffolk history brought to life for the screen and judging by Ralph Fiennes’ accent, he truly is a son of Suffolk.