This is the sort of film that they officially don’t make any more —slow-moving, subtle and extremely gentle— and the perfect remedy for the peevish ennui from which so many are currently suffering. Its quiet approach contrasts beautifully with its sensational subject matter, the find of the century (or, rather, the millennium): the Sutton Hoo ship burial. Much is made of the flat land, waterscapes and large skies of East Anglia, and the soft taciturnity of its inhabitants, especially in Ralph Fiennes’ performance as the gruff autodidact archaeologist Basil Brown. Carey Mulligan was apparently a second choice to Nicole Kidman in the role of landowner Mrs Pretty, who engages Brown to investigate the ancient tumuli on her property, and we can only be grateful that Kidman withdrew from the project. Mulligan’s performance is masterfully understated, progressing from cheery reserve to a profoundly tragic pathos. Her face has gained great character over the last decade, increasing in refinement and a delicate wryness which is beautifully deployed here.
As Lily James (endearing as ever in her role as a lonely female archaeologist married to a Gawdelpus named Piggott and in love with Mrs Pretty’s winsome cousin Rory, played by Johnny Flynn) acutely remarked in a recent Guardian interview, the film is really about the feeling of the impending Second World War. The timing of the excavation, in 1939, gives it an urgent, spiritual resonance. The Sutton Hoo discovery definitively established the existence of a sophisticated culture before the Norman invasions —as the lead professional archaeologist on the dig shouts, in the key moment of revelation, “These people were not just marauding barterers! They had culture! They had art! They had money!…The Dark Ages are no longer dark.” The reaction to the find must be set in the context of contemporary attempts to define and transfix an identity that many feared would soon be extinguished by another behemoth across the Channel, this time with little hope of secretive survival. A steady flow of accessibly-written books, printed on brittle economy paper with thin, wobbly endboards, attempted to fix in amber various aspects of the national character and way of life (while Kenneth Clark supervised the artistic capturing of the country in the Recording Britain project, in reality overwhelmingly focussed on England). I inherited many of these volumes from a dear friend who collected them after the war, and it has never been clear to me what exactly was supposed to happen to these time capsules in book form, in the worst case—were they to be hidden, like an Anglo-Saxon treasure, somewhere secure and secret? As for the Sutton Hoo hoard itself, it was swaddled far below London during the Blitz, almost like a talisman, in what modern England could offer as the nearest equivalent of a haligdom: a disused Underground station.
The Dig is one of the best and most realistic of the recent glut of features on the War, which often suffer from a kitschy nostalgia born of an increasing distance from events. There is none of the patriotic posturing that today’s age projects back onto that time of crisis, and it has an unvarnished aesthetic contrasting with that of many current mid-century period pieces, such as Their Finest, in which the people and places look far too glossy and clean. Chamberlain’s pale, defeated declaration of war on the wireless has featured in many films, one of those nationally traumatic moments to which film-makers return time and again, but it has never been more movingly spliced with visuals than here. The terminally-ill Mrs Pretty faces her personal abyss with the grim courage simultaneously displayed by her nation facing up to an unwanted war, both of them unconsciously echoing the fatalistic, solitary determination of Anglo-Saxon literature. As the double threat imperceptibly closes in, Brown becomes a source of ancient, instinctive wisdom, his knowledge of the East Anglian earth, inherited from his father and grandfather, rivalling that of the mole. (If there is something wonderful and mysterious buried in Mrs Pretty’s land, he’ll “know it by the smell.” Indeed, certain parts of the script skirt perilously close to Kenneth Williams-as-Arthur Fallowfield territory —the gardening expert from Beyond our Ken was fond of opining that “the answer lies in the soil.”) Brown explains to Mrs Pretty, for whom the discovery of the ship is a support in her trials, that we don’t really die, since we are “part of something continuous,” a type of survival which is, of course, predicated on the necessity of England itself coming through the war. It’s the sort of phlegmatic, Anglo-Saxon-throwback comfort in which Brown specialises, calming Mrs Pretty’s young son Robert, beside himself at being unable to help his mother, with the unexpectedly uplifting observation that “We all fail, every day.” Time, for Brown, is relative, and there is a particularly arresting scene in which past and present suddenly collapse upon each other, when he silently watches a boat glide along the estuary.
Some other recent reviews of this film have, rather bafflingly, diagnosed an inhibited romance between Brown and Mrs Petty —so inhibited, in fact, that it does not seem to be there at all. Brown’s attitude, initially a mixture of feudal deference combined with a defensive pride, eventually develops into a concerned affection. At the same time, the Browns’ marriage has been read as an unhappy one, when in fact it conforms to an old-fashioned model of reticent devotion. (“I do miss you. I bin reading your books for comp’ny,” says Mrs Brown, on a visit to her husband.) Mrs Pretty’s significance in the story, and her meaning to Brown, are ultimately revealed in her son Robert’s charming fantasy that the ship was in fact the burial of a great queen. The Pretty-Brown dynamic is certainly not a love relationship, except insofar as a queen commands love.
This beautiful film, a meditation on death, memory and survival, is brilliantly scripted by Moira Buffini, who also wrote the superb Wasikowska-Fassbender version of Jane Eyre. Fiennes’ exceptional portrayal of Brown —shy, quiet, brilliant, and stubborn, with an on-the-nail East Anglian accent— is perfectly matched by Mulligan’s characterisation of a dying woman, chipper brittleness not entirely disguising despair. Their unlikely alliance is the heart of a film which stunningly evokes a most particular time and place.--Isabel Taylor