THE excavation of an Anglo-Saxon ship from a field in Suffolk in 1939 doesn’t sound like popcorn-munching material, but The Dig is an enchanting film that slowly draws you in.
It’s based on the true story of the excavation of large burial mounds on the rural estate of Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), an ailing widow with a young son.
She employs self-taught excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) for a paltry £2 a week (about £120 in 2021) to start digging and see what he can find.
Conflict arises when Brown unearths an ancient ship, which turns out to be the burial site of an Anglo-Saxon king with amazing artefacts.
The British Museum get whiff of the extraordinary find and with snobby disdain relegate Brown to maintaining the site while they use their own archaeologists to progress the dig.
All this is set against the impending WW II and Pretty’s struggles – her health is flatlining while she struggles to bring up her son Robert (Archie Barnes).
Brown becomes a surrogate father to the daydreaming lad, teaching him about the constellations and getting him to help with the dig.
Fiennes puts in an excellent performance as the humble Brown – a man so taciturn you’d struggle to get him in a silent movie.
He’s world-weary after not getting the professional recognition he deserves because he wasn’t formally educated, instead learning from his father and grandfather.
Brown and Pretty form an unlikely bond over their lives going awry and feeling unfulfilled.
One of the film’s highlights is the English countryside – the slightly coarse landscapes are bathed in soft evening sun, casting a lambent hue over the tilled fields and winding burns.
Throw in a reflective piano score and it creates a melancholic palette for director Simon Stone to weave his magic.
Unfortunately about halfway through there’s an abrupt narrative shift, with the film focusing on a will-they-wont-they between site archaeologist Peggy Piggott (Lily James), who is married to a closet homosexual, and Pretty’s dashing cousin Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn), who is about to join the RAF.
Just when we were getting into the Pretty-Brown relationship, it suddenly tails off.
It felt like the new storyline was crowbarred in to provide a love interest and a link to the looming war (it was – the Lomax character was entirely fictional).
It’s well acted though and the focus does eventually shift back to Brown and Pretty, with the two plot lines reconciling.
There could have been more dramatic punch in The Dig and sometimes it’s a tad slow and the music overbearing (how many shots of a stoic Brown staring at fields with sombre music do we need?)
But it’s no Sunday afternoon movie and features excellent performances and a fascinating story, which becomes even more poignant when the film ends and you find out if Brown finally got the recognition he deserved…
The Dig is showing now on Netflix.
by STEPHEN POLLOCK