Brown and His Mound
As you may have noticed, I like dodgy old horror films and Japanese monster movies. You may not. This doesn't mean either of us is weird, it just means we are different people. However, what it does mean is that I am more likely to say kind things about a dodgy old horror film or Japanese monster movie than you are, and you should probably bear that in mind when thinking about asking me for film recommendations.
I mention this because every now and then a film comes along which gets favourable reviews and a bit of a buzz about it, and which a lot of people seem to really like – and when I eventually get around to seeing it, it really doesn't do a lot for me. It's moments like these which lead one to have a sort of nano-existential crisis about the whole reason for and value of writing about films on the internet: is this supposed to be some kind of useful semi-objective assessment of whether something is worth watching? Or just a string of feeble jokes and clever-sounding observations meant primarily to divert and entertain, with an acquaintance with the actual film strictly optional?
Bearing all this in mind, you can probably have a fair guess at which way this is going, but so be it: under discussion today is Simon Stone's The Dig. (I've been trying to avoid reviewing too many Netflix movies hereabouts, but what the hell: one every now and then isn't going to do too much harm.) The title is very much from the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin school of nomenclature, but perhaps there are hidden depths to be (ahem) excavated.
The movie opens with Ralph Fiennes making a journey by rowing boat, carrying a bicycle: this is at least easier than doing it the other way round. It turns out Fiennes is playing auto-didact archaeologist Basil Brown (not much like Indiana Jones, but they do have vaguely similar hats). The year is 1939 and Brown is off to see a potential new employer.
This person is Edith Pretty, a wealthy landowner in a damp part of Sussex. Pretty is played by Carey Mulligan. There has been a lot of fuss about what constitutes fair criticism of a Carey Mulligan performance recently, so I fear that if I suggest that her main role in this film is basically to be rather like Keira 'Twice' Knightley, but (one would assume) for less money, I may be taking my life in my hands. It's probably too late to worry about this now, though.
Mrs Pretty is keen for Basil Brown to examine her mounds. (Don't tut: the film itself uses almost exactly the same gag.) She has several of these on her land, and she, and the local archaeological establishment, think they may possibly date back to the Viking period. Basil thinks they may be even older, and once they have come to terms (the princely sum of £2 a week changes hands) he gets busy with his spade.
Well, at the risk of spoiling the history of British archaeology for you, one of the mounds turns out to have the Sutton Hoo National Trust site hidden inside it. This is big news, and gets the top boys from the British Museum in rather a lather. But can they conclude the excavation of the site and its treasures before war breaks out and this turns into yet another war movie about Plucky Britain Standing Alone?
My own excavations of the history of The Dig have revealed that, for a while during its development (this is another film which has been over a decade in the works) it was going to be a BBC Films production. This did not greatly surprise me, because it's the kind of thing that BBC Films considers a good fit for them: period setting, true-story angle, reasonably meaty parts for respectable actors, and so on. It's what I tend to refer to as a hats-and-fags movies, by which I mean that the historical setting is primarily evoked by the fact that everyone wears some sort of titfer and tends to have a ciggie on the go at all times.
And, obviously, it achieves all the minimal competencies in this area. Beyond that, however – well, at the risk of descending into cliché, it really seemed to me to be a film of two halves, one of which was rather more interesting and original than the other.
The first part of the film is – how can I put this? – quiet and still, more about atmosphere and figures in a landscape than anything else. Music plays gently as the characters contemplate the land and its history: the reassuring certainties of the past are implicitly contrasted with an unknown but turbulent-looking future (perhaps it's no surprise that this film has struck a chord with audiences in Britain, at least). Mulligan and Fiennes are basically front and centre throughout, and the film is as much about what they don't say to each other as what they do – in parts it almost resembles a big-budget gender-tweaked version of Ted and Ralph, with Mulligan playing Charlie Higson's part.
Then, rather earlier than I expected, the secret of the mounds is revealed and the film undergoes an abrupt mid-point change-of-gear: a lot of new characters descend, played by the likes of Lily James, Johnny Flynn and Ken Stott, and all that lovely stillness and thoughtfulness is largely dispelled. Those old standbys of the British costume drama, class and repressed emotion, take up major roles in driving the plot: Basil Brown is disparaged and patronised as the authorities try to take the site off him, someone else turns out to have a photogenic chronic medical condition, an unappreciated young wife (her husband is possibly implied to be gay) engages in a destined-not-to-be romance with a character with no historical basis, and so on.
I mean, it's not awfully done, but at the same time it is very generic stuff, no matter how well-played it is. It's almost as though the film-makers struggled along for as long as they could, trying to make something distinctive and atmospheric, touching on genuine ideas, but then they cracked under the strain and resorted to a lot of bits and pieces of plot which don't seem to have any particular focus, and honestly feel a bit soap-opera-ish.
And yet, on the other hand, lots of people like this kind of thing, which is why British period drama films are such a fixture of the schedule (and the Downton Abbey movie made £200 million). So perhaps I shouldn't gripe too loudly: this is, in a sense, a genre movie, and it's silly to complain about a genre movie featuring the tropes of its own genre. If you like this kind of thing, you will probably enjoy The Dig – it looks nice, the story hangs together, and the acting is good. But it did seem to me that, by the end, history and archaeology in general, and Sutton Hoo in particular, had largely been forgotten about, and I thought that was a shame.