Mrs. Pretty: “We die, and we decay and we don’t live on.”
Basil: “We’re part of something continuous, so we don’t really die.”
We’re in Sutton Hoo, Suffolk County in 1939, and what we’re about to see is based on a true story. Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), an excavator, rides on his bicycle towards a big estate. Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) greets him, and they walk through the grounds, with the handheld camera following them towards a group of unusual mounds of earth on her property. We’re on the eve of a war, and museums are hesitant to begin any new excavations. Edith is determined to move forward and hires Basil, an amateur archaeologist, to dig the mounds which they both believe to be Viking burial grounds. “The past speaks to us,” he says. The camera records their interactions as if we were witnesses, trailing their movements. It is all shot in yellow golden hues, and the endless-feeling horizon lines at the bottom of the screen emphasize the sky. There’s so much nuance, ambiguity and beauty to be uncovered in “The Dig” (2021). They will discover a buried ship, and within its burial chamber, a treasure. The discovery of the Anglo-Saxon ship will change the understanding of the history of early England.
Mrs. Pretty is still grieving the death of her husband. She has a young son, Robert, and is grappling with her own mortality. As a child she had rheumatic fever and it damaged a valve in her heart. At an early age she became acquainted with archeology because of her travels and helping her father uncover a Cistercian abbey. The excavation in her property brings an urgency to her life and gives it purpose. It also provides wonder and excitement to Robert. Mulligan astounds especially since this role is miles apart from her ferocious turn in “Promising Young Woman.”
Fiennes fully transforms as Brown, the working-class man/self- taught archaeology expert who left school at 12 years old and learned a working knowledge of German, French and Latin to communicate with the other academics in the field. He’s also well versed in astronomy. Pretty and Brown develop a platonic relationship. They both find in this quest a common goal that defies her being contained by her sex and ailment and him by his class. “I have a feeling about this one,” she tells him as they stand on the mound where the ship will be uncovered. Questions about life and mortality and what we leave behind are in both of their thoughts. “That’s someone’s grave,” says Pretty when the chamber is dug. Brown tells her “no, that’s life what’s revealed. And that’s why we dig.”
Director Simon Stone, well-known in England for his groundbreaking theatrical work including a visceral “Yerma” that I got a chance to see in New York at the Park Amory, grounds the story down, and then allows it all to levitate. Besides the aforementioned cinematography by Mike Eley who keeps on the edge of discovery, Academy Award nominated editor Jon Harris, whose non-conventional work has been seen in Danny Boyle films (“127 Hours”), does something that pricked up my ears. Throughout the traditional forward moving storytelling, he separates the dialogue from the footage seen, and their words score scenes happening in the future. The effect feels like the past is taking a hold of the present and making an impression on current events. Most prominent is the scene in which Brown, in a torrential downpour, struggles to put a tarp over the ship recently brought to the surface ship while Mrs. Pretty is having a literal heartbreak in her bedroom.
The screenplay opens its focus beyond Pretty and Brown. Once the excavation starts it includes the players that make it all happen. The film is based on novelist John Preston’s account of the undertaking. His aunt was Peggy Piggott, one of the archeologists at the site. She found the first gold. The Ipsich Museum, skeptical at first of the undertaking by amateurs, eventually returns with specialists from the British Museum. They are all astounded by what has come up to the surface. Since the discovery is now of national interest, they declare that they will take control and dismiss Basil. Peggy (played by a beguiling Lilly James) becomes another compelling layer to the story.
Like a Chekhovian play, the introduction of new players, instead of convoluting things, makes it all reverberate with deep resonance. There are several moments that made me gasp. Young Robert at a moment finds himself in despair after finding out his mother is dying. He is comforted by Brown in the garden outside their home. “We all fail,” Brown tells him. “Everyday. There are certain things we can’t succeed at.”
Seeing Mulligan and Fiennes together is worth the price of admission. The rest is wonderful.
May (Brown’s wife): “You always told me your work isn’t about the past or even the present. It’s for the future. So that the next generations can know where they came from. The line that joins them to their forebears.”
Available to stream on Netflix
Screenplay by Moira Buffini
Based on the novel by John Preston
Directed by Simon Stone
Starring Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James, Johnny Flynn, Ben Chaplin, Ken Stott, Archie Barnes, Monica Dolan
Bringing “The Dig” to the Screen
“The Dig,” out Jan. 29, was adapted by Moira Buffini (“Harlots”) from John Preston’s 2007 novel of the same name. Preston discovered that his aunt, Peggy Piggott (played in the movie by Lily James), had been involved in the excavation. and his subsequent research, he said in an interview, revealed “a treasure story for grown-ups.” It’s a tale of an unlikely kinship between Brown and Pretty across barriers of class and gender, and of the unearthing of a magnificent ancient civilization just as the world headed toward the devastation of war. Stone, well known in Europe as a theater and opera director who has radically reimagined canonical works like “Yerma” and “La Traviata,” spent his early years in Britain, but moved back with his family to their native Australia at 12. “The Dig” is his second film (after “The Daughter”), and its period gentleness, rootedness in time and place and slow pace are a significant departure from much of his previous work. But Gabrielle Tana, who produced the film, said that as soon as she met Stone, she knew he was the right director. “Various directors had been associated with the project, and for one reason or another hadn’t worked out,” she said. Stone “talked about how essential it is to maintain the relics and artifacts of our civilization so that we don’t forget our past. I had to hound him; he wanted to do it, but he always has five operas and six plays on the go.”…In a telephone interview from Berlin, Stone said that he had been drawn to “how unconventional the story was in its packaging, how unsexy.” “I was fascinated by the challenge of making these characters, constrained by their time and personalities,” he added, “as full of life and energy as any contemporary character I would direct in a play.” To that end, Stone said, he tried to keep the actors “very unrehearsed, very free, very spontaneous.” The actors, who were often asked to improvise lines after their scripted exchanges had ended, didn’t know where other performers would be standing or moving in a scene; the director of photography, Mike Eley, wasn’t told where characters would be placed. Sometimes, Stone said, these methods “go horribly wrong, but more often it leads to a kind of spontaneity that contradicts our ideas about mannered period drama.” (nytimes.com)
About Director of Photography Mike Eley
Mike began his career shooting and directing documentaries before moving into features and television drama. Over the last two decades he has accumulated awards working with some of the most acclaimed directors working today. In 2000 he worked on Ken Loach’s “The Navigators” and in 2003 his work on Kevin Macdonald’s “Touching the Void” earned Mike a BIFA for Best Technical Achievement. He has teamed up with Susanna White many times, notably on the BBC’s 2006 adaptation of “Jane Eyre” for which Mike was nominated for an EMMY. He went on to shoot Susanna’s debut feature “Nanny McPhee” & “The Big Bang” before lensing her BBC/HBO TV series “Parade’s End” earning Mike a second EMMY nomination. In 2007, he shot Michael Suscy’s HBO film “Grey Gardens,” his work reaping a third Outstanding Cinematography In a Miniseries or Movie EMMY nomination. In 2012, Mike teamed up with Clio Barnard for her much-acclaimed feature “The Selfish Giant.” Mike has worked on numerous occasions with director Roger Michell; the 2014 ITV film “The Lost Honour of Christopher Jeffries” – for which Mike won a BAFTA; a Sky Arts adaptation of Joe Penhall’s play “Birthday,” Roger’s own screen adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s “My Cousin Rachel” (2017) starring Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin and the 2019 feature “Blackbird” starring Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet and Sam Neill. Mike’s most recent collaboration with Roger is “The Duke” starring Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent and due a screen release late 2021. Mike worked with Ralph Fiennes on his third feature as director, “The White Crow” in 2018. Mike’s latest feature collaboration with Susanna White, “Woman Walks Ahead” starring Jessica Chastain, was also released that same year. 2019 saw Mike shoot three features; two debut works by Jules Williamson (“Off the Rails”) and James D’Arcy (“Made in Italy”) and the second feature from Simon Stone, “The Dig.” All three films will be released in 2021. (mikeeleydop.com)
About Screenwriter Moira Buffini
Moira Buffini’s plays include Blavatsky’s “Tower” (Machine Room), “Gabriel” (Soho Theatre), “Silence” (Birmingham Rep), “Loveplay” (Royal Shakespeare Company), “Dinner” (National Theatre and West End), “Dying for It,” adapted from “The Suicide” by Nikolai Erdman (Almeida), “A Vampire Story” (NT Connections), “Marianne Dreams” (Almeida), “Welcome to Thebe” (National Theatre), “Handbagged” (Tricycle Theatre) and “wonder.land,” created with Damon Albarn and Rufus Norris (National Theatre). (concordtheatricals.com) A few of her screenplays include “Temp” (1995), “Tamara Drewe” (2010), “Jane Eyre” (2011), “Byzantium” (2012), “Viceroy’s House” (2017) and most recently “The Dig” in 2021. Buffini also wrote eleven episodes of the series “Harlots” from 2017-2019.
About Author John Preston
John Preston was born in 1953. He was once an Arts Editor for The Sunday Telegraph and The Evening Standard. He is the author of four highly acclaimed novels, “The Dig,” “Ghosting,” “Ink and Kings of the Roundhouse,” and a travel book, “Touching the Moon.” His book, “A Very English Scandal,” was adapted into a Golden Globe and BAFTA TV-nominated mini-series on the BBC written by Russell T. Davies, directed by Stephen Frears and starring award winning actors Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw. Preston currently lives in London and his new book is an account of the downfall of Robert Maxwell, Fall. (rcwlitagency.com)
About Director Simon Stone
Born in Basel and educated at Cambridge, Stone returned to Australia in 2007 to found The Hayloft Project. The company’s first production, Frank Wedekind’s “Spring Awakening” (Frühlings Erwachen) established its reputation at a stroke. Stone quickly became known as an inspiring director with a unique style. He likes to take pieces from the standard repertoire which, with the help of his cast, he reworks into intimate, almost cinematic performances. Stone has previously applied this approach to Chekhov’s “Platonov” and Seneca’s “Thyestes.” In 2011 he was invited to become resident director of Sydney’s Belvoir theatre company. Australian writer and director Simon Stone (1984) is a unique voice in international theater. He is best known for his contemporary adaptations of classical texts and he quickly became a welcome guest at festivals in Europe. For ITA he adapted “Medea” (Euripides) and created Ibsen house, based on various pieces by the Norwegian master. This four-hour family drama was embraced by the press and the public at the Avignon Festival. He also directed ITA’s ensemble in Woody Allen’s “Husbands and wives.” In his adaptations Stone strips the original to its essence and places the moral dilemmas and themes within a contemporary context. His characters are recognizable, doubting, seeking people in extreme circumstances.
Simon Stone is praised for his razor-sharp dialogues, his humor, the intensity of acting and his inventive directorial style in which abstraction and hyperrealism go hand in hand in an exciting way. Stone is now active in the opera circuit as well and has just completed his second feature film. After the well received “The Daughter,” based on Ibsens “The Wild Duck,” he now created The Dig, a historical drama starring Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes. The film was produced by Netflix. He often works on the basis of improvisation and characterizations suggested by a play, creating an entirely new script through which the original nevertheless shines. His version of Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck” was enthusiastically received during the 2013 Holland Festival. More recently, Stone has reworked “The Oresteia” to become an emotional and thought-provoking contemporary family drama. German critics were unanimous in their praise for the passion he shows: ‘The retelling of the Classics reaches a completely new radicalism. Stone does not re-interpret as such, but rewrites the piece for our times.’ Stone frequently returns to the classics and mythology because he believes that they raise all the essential questions about the human condition. “You cannot make theatre based on fear or compromises; without polemics there is no art.” (ita.nl)