Truth and Movies

The Dig

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Simon Stone

Starring

Carey Mulligan Lily James Ralph Fiennes

Anticipation.

Top cast, but is this not just Time Team 1939?

Enjoyment.

Wheels out soft romantic shenanigans at the expense of the drama of the dig.

In Retrospect.

Lots to admire, but not enough to love. Mulligan is MVP.

Carey Mulligan shines in this dour archeological drama on the discovery of the Sutton Hoo historical payload.

Bravi to director Simon Stone, writer Moria Buffini and their team for taking on the unenviable task of spinning a heart-pulsing melodrama out of the discovery of the archeological treasures of ‘Sutton Hoo’ in the late 1930s. Widowed dowager Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) calls on the services of local excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes, basically playing a version of Ted from Fast Show mainstay, Ted and Ralph) to take a look at a pair of mounds which she feels could be bulging with antiquarian goodies. A very pursed English drama ensues.

Initially there are hints that this is to become a love story, and that the pair will develop a romantic bond amid the sopping mud and high seriousness of the endeavour. But any notions of such stifled yearning are nixed by about the half-way point when the story introduces a clutch of new characters, which includes Lily James’ bushy-tailed student archeologist and Johnny Flynn’s cool-guy photographer-cum-flying ace, and heads off in some strange and not-altogether satisfying directions.

In the scenes prior to the moment that shovel has first connected with mud, Stone is forced to dance on the spot a little by working with lots of shots of people standing in empty fields, and try as he might, he can’t make them interesting. As breathtaking as a windswept Suffolk vista is on screen, too many of them can certainly have you glancing off to search out the nearest tea room. Yet hands are soon dirtied, and there’s even a left-field action set piece where Basil almost comes a-cropper.

The scope of the find becomes clear by about a third of the way into the film, but then the script almost sweeps this once-in-a-generation bounty aside in favour of exploring Edith’s life-threatening ill health, Basil’s hard-bitten honour code and lack of professional nous, and Edith’s pre-teen son’s (Archie Barnes) sentimental search for a father figure, having lost his own in the war.

Add to that some rather unsatisfactory business involving Ben Chaplin as a closeted gay man who is stringing along James (and the film is in no way empathetic towards his sexual awakening), and a Mexican stand-off between Basil, the British Museum and a local museum, and it maybe doesn’t end up amounting to much.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the film is how little time it spends on actually convincing viewers unfamiliar with the importance of Sutton Hoo that this was a fairly epochal moment in the annals of British ancient history. When treasures are plucked on the ground, they’re flung in a pot or on a table, and the audience are left to see them as random spoils rather than as a blueprint to the very fabric of our modern society.

That said, Mulligan brings a sultry verve to Edith which lends the film a much-needed sense of windswept melancholy, and there’s also the always-great Monica Dolan who pops as Basil’s nervy wife. In just two short scenes, she fleshes out this small character with a full and eventful life, and her immaculate line-readings hint at what is an extremely dysfunctional relationship that itself could be the burial mound of its own undead demons. Would’ve been nice to have seen more of it, frankly.

Published 29 Jan 2021

Tags: Carey Mulligan Lily James Ralph Fiennes Simon Stone The Dig

Anticipation.

Top cast, but is this not just Time Team 1939?

Enjoyment.

Wheels out soft romantic shenanigans at the expense of the drama of the dig.

In Retrospect.

Lots to admire, but not enough to love. Mulligan is MVP.

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