Having a heavily accented character played by Ralph Fiennes call on a widowed lady before heading out into the grounds of her estate and commenting on the issue she has with rabbits did put me in mind of the Wallace & Gromit movie. This is my curse; involuntarily forming distracting cinematic connections in my brain.
My own comparisons to a very different type of story soon left my head though as they were pushed out by the writers’ own attempts to link this simple tale to a range of other plots that feel like they have come from entirely different films.
The Dig is first and foremost about excavator and amateur archeologist Basil Brown, the part taken by Fiennes, who in 1939 was hired by one Edith Pretty to investigate what was hidden in the ancient burial mounds found on her land in Sutton Hoo. Any kid who took that school trip to The British Museum will know that what they found was the single greatest archeological find on, and under, UK soil. The extensive array of Anglo Saxon artefacts dug up told us much of what we know about Britain in the Dark Ages and have excited historians pretty much ever since.
This should be enough but the narrative has other events shoehorned in, apparently in an effort to make things more captivating. Personally I was happy with the gentle drama and character studies around Brown and Pretty and their unrushed attempt to discover lost treasures. I was even content to go with the polite conflict generated by the establishment bigwigs getting involved and the theme of larger battles to come with WWII around the corner added effectively to the drama too. What I didn’t need was the near fatal accident, the missing child, the failing health, the gay repression subplot, the spurious romance and one sizeable event that I won’t spoil here but that felt like something that had flown in from a bigger, louder action movie.
All of this no doubt comes from the pages of the book that the film is based on and I can see that most of it could have worked here, where there was space to develop all of these other threads. On screen though it unfortunately makes things seem unnecessarily busy.
Ultimately, while these elements intrude they manage not to distract. My criticisms notwithstanding, The Dig is a charming film peppered with excellent performances from a variety of familiar faces. Fiennes’ performance probably isn’t a stretch for him but is still strong and different from much of what he has done in an increasingly varied career (including Wallace & Gromit and the Curse of the Were-rabbit). Carey Mulligan is also quietly forceful as Mrs. Pretty in a performance that could be a challenge for another actor but seems effortless for her. Curiously the real Edith Pretty was in her mid fifties, two decades older than Mulligan is now, but she manages to make the part her own. Lily James and Ben Chaplin turn up as a married couple despite playing father and daughter when they last appeared together in Cinderella and again it works. Monica Dolen and Johnny Flynn add to their growing filmographies and Ken Stott brings his usual reliability.
Beyond the cast, the cinematography of the Suffolk countryside is stunning and the recreation of a time when men wore shirts and ties to dig a hole is endearingly British in a Downton Abbey/Agatha Christie but not twee kind of way.
The Ripley Factor:
As suggested Mulligan’s Edith is a gracious but formidable presence. Mulligan clearly has a particular interest in feminist roles and this is a nice depiction of a woman who status was down to her husband but her place in history was not. Furthermore what we get here is a man whose own fame was secured by a female rather than the other way around. Basil Brown’s involvement in the Sutton Hoo excavation was unknown for some time but there is no doubt that it would never have been unearthed had it not been for Edith Pretty.