Exhuming emotion 

Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan star in The Dig, while Lily James (bottom right) provides the love interest.

THE excavation of an Anglo-Saxon ship from a field in Suffolk in 1939 doesn’t sound like popcorn-chewing 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 a rural estate belonging to 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 a Anglo-Saxon king with amazing artefacts.

The British Museum get whiff of the extraordinary find and with snobby disdain relegate Brown to keeping the site in order while they employ their own archaeologists to progress the dig.

All this is set against the backdrop of Ms Pretty’s struggles – her health is flatlining while she struggles to bring up her son Robert – and the impending World War II.

Brown becomes like a surrogate father to the daydreaming lad, teaching him about the constellations and getting him to help with the dig. Brown and Pretty form an unlikely bond based on their lives not going to plan and feeling unfulfilled.  

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 failing to get the professional recognition he deserves because he lacks a formal education and was trained by his father and grandfather.

One of the highlights of the film is the English countryside – the slightly coarse landscapes are mostly filmed at evening when the fading summer sun casts a soft 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 the film 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 cousin Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn), who is about to go to war as an RAF pilot.

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 – this was never part of the novel on which the film was based).

It’s well acted though and the focus does eventually shift back to Brown and Pretty, with the two plot lines reconciling, albeit rather clumsily. There could have been a bit more dramatic punch in The Dig and sometimes it’s a tad slow and the music overbearing (how many shots of a world-weary Brown staring at fields with sombre music playing 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.

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