The Dig is a period film you have to watch as soon as possible. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Carey Mulligan, Lily James, Monica Dolan and Johnny Flynn, it offers a dream-like elegy and poetically dramatised account of the true story of one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time. The discovery of the Sutton Hoo Anglo Saxon burial ship, unearthed on the eve of war in 1939, with its sophisticated golden treasure trove collected from every part of the ancient world, fit for a warrior king.
Based on the real people and events involved in the excavation, director Simon Stone has created a film that finally does justice to the un-sung, remarkable life and work of Basil Brown, the self-taught archaeologist, astronomer and author who meticulously excavated the ship to reveal the find of the century that would illuminate and transform our understanding of the dark ages. A film that is mystical and life-affirming, with delightful flourishes of British whimsy. The Dig is a story full of wonder and hope with an intense connection to the weather, the seasons and the order of living and dying things.
A love letter to the very nature of human existence, to the Suffolk landscape and to our thirst for knowledge; while Ralph Fiennes delivers a noble and uncannily brilliant performance as the salt of the earth, self taught archaeologist and scholar, Basil Brown, complete with authentic Suffolk brogue, which has been praised for its authenticity. Fiennes made two visits to the British Museum to study original photographs of the 1938-39 excavations at Sutton Hoo in order to perfect Basil's mode of dress and his exact mannerisms from the way he tucked his trousers into his boots to his signature hat and pocket watch.
Thanks to Fiennes, Stone and Moira Buffini's script, how could anyone not know now that the credit for one of the greatest finds in European archaeology truly belongs to Basil Brown. A talented and self-educated man who was side-lined because of the cold-blooded dictates of class. While Carey Mulligan plays Sutton Hoo landowner and widow Edith Pretty with ghostly grace and intellectual curiosity, as if Daisy Buchanan had been transplanted to a sleepy Suffolk mansion and left to make her mark on the world in the most marvellous way, before slowly fading away from a damaged heart caused by rheumatic fever in childhood.
There is a subtle cloak of romance and a shared exploration of ideas between Basil and Edith in the film. The fact that it is never consummated makes it all the more poignant and fertile ground for the imagination to ask what if? There is a meeting of minds and a shared curiosity for the past and after they are caught in a downpour on the dig, Edith girlishly asks Basil to have dinner with her, breaking with convention.
These scenes between the archaeologist and his patroness are wonderfully subtle, intimate and filled with tension, longing and a sense of impending disaster as war looms. We see Edith dining alone or dressed like a shimmering, painted thirties goddess, longing to talk about King Tut and Howard Carter with a no nonsense man who is clever, accomplished, straight-forward and well read and not an upper middle class prig. Alas Basil's stoic and devoted wife and champion turns up to check that he hasn't lost his heart to the lady of the manor as well as his beloved ship!
Ah what if?! What if?! So, Edith is left to look out of her ivory tower like a princess, while Basil shows her son Robert the wonders of the cosmos through his telescope. Note the scene where we see Edith curled up in bed distraught by the news that she is dying. The next moment Basil is also shown lying curled up in the earth of the excavated Anglo Saxon ship, equally distraught at being kicked out of his own dig by the pompous and bullying archaeologist Charles Phillips who is trying to take the credit for his discovery. Observe closely, because the film is full of mystical moments and spiritual connections like this. In the next scene we learn that Edith has championed Basil and he is to stay on the dig. This is spooky! Is this a moment of ESP?
Praise must also go to Lily James for her portrayal of Peggy Piggott, the archaeologist who uncovers the first gold artefacts and rejects a cold lavender marriage with an older academic for a passionate relationship with photographer and Air Force pilot Rory Lomax, played with boy's own charisma by Johnny Flynn.
While Johnny's character is fictional, Rory Lomax epitomises and honours the thousands of young men who signed up for the RAF to train as pilots during World War Two and didn't come home. The RAF lost almost half its pilots and more 75,000 men and women in total from Bomber Command. Whatever parts he plays, and he plays the quintessential Englishman with with a sort of indelible, heroic romanticism, Johnny was born to play heroes and English eccentrics when he isn't making music to break and mend hearts for near perfect drama like The Detectorists.
Initially, Peggy is portrayed as a bumbling, frumpy, deferential bluestocking who is in awe of her male colleagues. While her husband and so-called professional archaeologists are not exactly painted in a flattering light either, in reality, Peggy was an experienced field archaeologist and published author by the time she took part in the Sutton Hoo dig. The scene where Phillips puts her skills down in front of her colleagues and makes a joke about piglet is offensive. Sadly, the reality is that this still happens today. I can remember being told I was lucky to have a job as a woman on a prestigious photographic journal at the beginning of my career in journalism by a pompous male photographer and another top lensman offered me the job of mistress! But equally, I have known wonderful male editors, and the person who gave me my first break on a national newspaper was a man who loved to help women succeed in journalism.
Sexism aside, this intelligent, beautifully conceived film from director Simon Stone, with a poetic, finely crafted screenplay by Moira Buffini and cinematography like a Turner painting by Mike Eley will move you and re-ignite your passion for the wonders of life, nature, the soil, ancient kings and noble warriors, the magical early morning light on the Suffolk flats as a barge glides slowly by and the thrill of learning how are ancestors lived.
Who knows, it might change your whole life and make your yearn to be an archaeologist ' digging down to meet the dead' like the fantastic Basil Brown, played with heroic fortitude, magnetism and stubbornness by Ralph Fiennes, a man who is thoroughly in his element playing kings, malcontents and a man who knows the soil.
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The Dig is Streaming on Netflix https://www.netflix.com/browse
Copyright Alison Jane Reid/Ethical Hedonist Magazine January 2020, All Rights Reserved.
About the Journalist - Alison Jane Reid, AJ, is a journalist, author, broadcaster and student mentor and the founding editor and publisher of this independent arts and culture magazine. AJ spent a decade writing about icons, film, fashion and food at The Times Newspaper in the UK, as contributing editor to the Saturday Times Magazine. She trained at Mirror Group Newspapers and also worked at The Lady Magazine and her features, interviews and broadcasts have appeared in - The Sunday Times, The Independent, ES, You Magazine, Orient Express, How to Spend It, Red, Harpers Wine and Spirits, Tatler, ITV and Sky and publications around the globe via syndication. Support AJ, and quality independent journalism. Become a supporter and subscribe today - https://www.ethical-hedonist.com/signup/
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