Now this one is lovely. If you’re alone at Christmas, take the chance to watch something free of Noellian syrup, with something to say about history, class, sexism and perhaps your own expectations of odd friendships. Between old men and young women. And without having to look away.
Mostly this tells the story of Sutton Hoo, the 1939 uncovering of a smattering of England’s birth, but mostly the snobbishness of an old Establishment, and what could be the best kind of class-breaking friendship. A nearly true story of The Dig (2021).
So, Carey Mulligan is the young yet frail Edith Pretty (really). She is ill and fading (and in real life, twenty years older), and wants the apparent barrows on her land excavated. There may be dead kings, a dash of treasure, or a telling truth for the historians. This is good.
She calls on the significantly older, grumpier, marriedier Ralph Fiennes. He is Basil Brown, a belittled man of the soil paid an agricultural labourer’s wage by the local university. He thinks the mounds may be Anglo-Saxon (snobbier elements fancy Viking).
Smells of class, yeah? It certainly run through Brown’s world: the regard of the academics, from local and national institutions, the manner of his cuddlesome wife (Monica Dolan as May Brown) who his fascinations isolate, and the mumbled friendship with Edith against whom he exists in a fug of shyness and facts. Her confidence in him, grown from reactionary feelings to the academics, makes heroes of them both.
So. He digs into the dirt, gets over-eager, gets buried and dug up by Edith’s panic and men rushed to his rescue. It’s a moment of bonding lifted further by the discovery of bits of a ship. This is the burial site of someone properly important. In swoop the academics. Ken Stott, now in the full bloom of late middle-age, huffs, puffs and blows down Brown. He takes over the dig, now of national importance (!), and relegates the humble excavator to clearing up. Class again. Brown left school at the tip of his teens, which makes the stuff he knows irrelevant to the book-learned.
It’s a lovely film to this point. Fiennes is all soft-clothed, mutteringly smart and respectful – but with an edge. He demands what he is worth for the work – and you know the story loves him. Mulligan is determined and principled, but weakened by whatever is killing her. The two never give up their early-twentiteth-century social ranks – how could they? But it is warming to see the professional tinged with respect and the protective stuff of friendship. Mulligan and Fiennes are terrific.
Where the film wanders is the modern folk. Lily James is a junior archeologist Peggy Piggott and feels like a movie creation with movie plot points (she is light enough to walk on the excavation… hmmm…), married to a sublimated man who likes men (Ben Chaplin, relaxing into a lovely career of character parts, who always has a better mood away from her). They are a couple making points that aren’t needed. But the approach of war (an incident with a plane brings atmosphere if not insight) is nicely done and marks out a place for The Dig as a movie; it is not a documentary.
There is further warmth with Edith’s son, his relationship with family and the Browns. The film keeps your focus to the end, and is enough to send you off to Wiki to judge it for its dramatic licence and the pitiable real-life elimination of Brown from his own story. The Dig restores him.
Old Jack here enjoyed the thing, mighty hot chocolate and a fat blanket to hand, without feeling nervous of how far astray it was from reality. And that’s enough. A film as English as can be that feels very Scottish (Tannochbrae, to be exact).
Netflix ahoy: Dig in.