When stuck in a plot hole, crime writer Raymond Chandler used to send in a new character with a gun. Director Simon Stone has employed the same concept, minus weaponry. People just keep turning up in The Dig, adding very little to the story, which in itself, setting aside National Trust hype, is on the slim side. A sixth-century Suffolk burial site (thought it does cast new light on the Dark Ages so we are told) is not in the same archeological class as a velociraptor or an Egyptian tomb. Mostly, we are misled. For the first third it looks like we are heading for Lady Chatterley’s Lover territory with posh lady (Carey Mulligan) eyeing up the digger (Ralph Fiennes) until his wife turns up. Then it looks like it’s going to be a battle royal between Fiennes and the Establishment, but that is headed off.
It’s 1939 so the Second world War is on its way. Cue the arrival of wannabe pilot (Johnny Flynn). A top archaeologist (Ken Stott) also appears but that doesn’t go anywhere either, bringing with him Ben Chaplin and Lily James fresh from their honeymoon. James gets the hots for Johnny Flynn and there’s just enough time before the credits roll for them to get at it.
This is the kind of film that has money to spend on an old WW2 aeroplane or maybe a CGI version of one but not enough for decent sound recording equipment. Most of the time conversations are over the shoulder or in long shot. It’s not just words, it’s expressions, faces that tell a story, and being denied these seems bizarre. It may be an artistic decision, some critic thought we were being made to “dig” for the story. But it’s hard enough to work up any enthusiasm without being made to work harder.
Ralph Fiennes is excellent, a son of the soil, self-taught, but no shrinking violet either. His scenes with posh lady’s son (Archie Barnes) are very touching, the young lad having invented a whole world for himself. Carey Mulligan just looks as though she’s about to burst into tears, probably wondering how she managed to be talked into playing (at age 34) a woman who was actually 56 at the time of the dig and wishing Nicole Kidman and Cate Blanchett (closer to that age) who were at one point attached had not left her to it.
The dig itself is interesting – but only for about five minutes. We know all we need to know about the boring sifting and brushing and digging from other films and we don’t learn more from this except how easy it is for a wall to suddenly collapse and nearly kill someone.
The most intriguing part of the film came at the end when we discovered that the burial ship dug up was buried for the duration of the war in an Underground station in London. How did they manage that, I wondered. Whereas I didn’t wonder much about anything else in this film.