Ostensibly this is the story of the excavation of the Sutton Hoo Anglo Saxon burials in Suffolk in 1939. Adapted from the novel by John Preston, who also penned the excellent A Very English Scandal.
The Dig could hardly be set at a more pivotal and ominous time, the Second World War looms over every frame in one way or another. Whether it is the soldiers jumping into convoys of waiting trucks, or the pilots training in the skies overhead, it informs the moods and fears of the characters. We are never in any doubt as to the costs of war, melancholy suffuses the screen, presaging that many of these young men’s names will be engraved upon war memorials in towns and villages across the country.
It’s a story of love and loss, of class and social status, prejudice and compassion. Basil Brown is the working class ‘excavator’ hired by the landowner Edith Pretty to explore what lies beneath the mounds on her land. As Brown, Ralph Fiennes conveys much more emotion in the tilt of his head and his eyes than many actors could muster, whilst chewing the scenery. And he also taps into a very Suffolk kind of stoicism, the English trait of never acknowledging emotion, let alone talking about it is taken very seriously. Believe me I know, growing up with a large number of Suffolk born aunts and uncles of a similar generation, it is very true to life. Plus, his Suffolk accent, and more importantly the dialect, is spot on.
Carey Mulligan’s portrayal of the landowner Edith Pretty is full of understated depth, a widow with a young son, she stands up to the academic establishment in her choice of Brown as excavator. Yet her health is in sharp decline and it is deeply affecting to see this strong person cope with frailty, loneliness and responsibility. This mix of the main protagonists’ backgrounds and personalities creates an alchemical reaction. Ultimately it is uplifting as it explores what is good in all of the characters. In Brown she finds honesty, integrity and selfless dedication to what he does, in her he finds someone that understands precisely that.
It is a wonderful adaptation of the book by John Preston, the only thing that the film-makers have trimmed out is a lot of the humour, but on reflection it could have ended up being a distraction. Preston’s charm is in finding the humour that shows the characters’ differences on the page. When Brown first goes to see Pretty about the job, Edith is amazed that he is not only Brown by name, but he is tanned to a shade of mahogany, as well as being dressed in brown. She wonders what he is clutching in his hand, ‘he was holding an object in his left hand – brown inevitably – mashed between his fingers.’ She fears it might be an animal of some sort ‘then I realised it was his cap’. These asides lend the book a charm that the film finds for itself through the cinematography. The countryside around the area of Sutton Hoo is beautifully depicted, the slow estuarine journey of the River Deben between the site of the excavation and the market town of Woodbridge, and the liminal beauty of the sunlight at dawn and dusk, are as important to the story as the actors. The cinematography of Mike Eley BSC is simply gorgeous, the camera movement unlocks layers of hidden meaning, using that delicious quality of light to wonderful effect.
Unfortunately they had to use Surrey as a stand in for Suffolk in some scenes, but we’ll let that go. The screenplay by Moira Buffini is a perfect adaptation, watch the film and get the book, both are a charm.
The Dig – A Netflix movie, Directed by Simon Stone, adapted from the book of the same name by John Preston. Starring Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Johnny Flynn and Lilly James.