[Interview] Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes and director Simon Stone excavate the past in ‘THE DIG’

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Director Simon Stone’s THE DIG may be a period piece, but the timeless sentiments enclosed are perfectly retrofitted for this modern era. The drama takes place right before England enters the World War II and centers on wealthy widowed mother Edith Pretty (Cary Mulligan) whose vast property contains quite a few mysterious mounds that she enlists archeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to excavate. Not only are the characters engaging, its messages about perseverance in the face of adversity fully resound.

Since the film is a mix of history and fiction, and is based on the book by John Preston, the affable actors dug into the real life backgrounds of their characters. Previously to signing onto the project, both Fiennes and Mulligan had learned a little bit about the discoveries at Sutton Hoo. But it wasn’t until the plunged deeper until those characters began to crystalize. At the film’s recent press day, Fiennes shared that when he first was offered the script he’d only known the “crude facts” of the story.

“I wasn’t sure whether they were real people, or fictitious. Then I did some quick research and found out it was real. I got excited by this man, where he came from, the fact he was largely self-taught, very clever – obsessed with Suffolk archeology where he grew up – and had written a book about the history of astronomical charts before the Sutton Hoo. And after Sutton Hoo, he went on being an archeologist. I had the most enriching and rewarding time researching.”

As for Mulligan, she said,

“My knowledge about Sutton Hoo before wasn’t something I knew very much about. I’m really interested in playing stories about women that feel real to me and I felt that about Edith.”

She was instantly captivated by Edith Pretty and her struggles as a woman and a mother. She continued,

“With Edith, it felt like it was a woman who was being bound by the time she grew up in this society and the restrictions of her gender. The whole way through the film, I felt Edith wanted to get down in the dirt and dig up the treasure herself. I thought there was so much humility to her, but there was this adventurous, exotic history she had that had all been put away by her circumstances.”

Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes in THE DIG. Courtesy of NETFLIX © 2021 

One of the adaptation’s overarching themes revolves around what’s vital not being lost. This idea extended into the actors’ portrayals of these historic figures who’ve been hidden from the masses for so long. And there were certain qualities each wanted to get across in their performances. Mulligan elucidated,

“I wanted to explore her – the pressures she feels as a mother, and as a woman, are still resonant today. I don’t think just because we’ve moved on, times have changed. It still feels very real. She felt like a real woman with a full complexity and flaws. It’s surprisingly rare to read – a female character who is real and honest.”

Fiennes mentioned it was all the digging in the dirt that grounded him.

“I really loved trying to get under the skin of the Basil that I was researching and imagining. Something about the value of manual work came out to me a bit. I had to do real digging and scraping and troweling. I think there’s something about manual work where the body is physically engaged, stressed and challenged, that was… I was busy being in awe of Basil’s knowledge and expertise. But it gave me more of a sense of reconnection to my father, who was a passionate gardener. I don’t have a garden to speak of and suddenly I reconnected with the idea of creating physical work – excavation.

I have a foster brother, Mick, who has been an archeologist. I remember him always saying, “It’s a lot of labor. People always think of the beautiful Roman pot coming out from underground. They don’t realize that archeology is hours and hours of lifting dirt before you find it.” I think that was what came through to me most strongly.”

Stone wanted to preserve a sweet-spirited concept that joy can still exist in hard times.

“You need to hold onto the moments that are happening to you when they’re happening because everything could disappear in the moment. Anyone who’s experienced the kind of trauma, or someone disappearing from their life, that the emptiness, or absence that creates will be aware of cherishing every moment.”

The atmospheric underpinnings of angst, grief and recovery are woven throughout feelings of joy and hope. Stone experienced some push-back against include those more sorrowful facets from development executives.

“It’s an unconventional thing to create a film where death is so present and apparent from the beginning of the film. And a lot of people in development thought that was going to be a downer. I said, “No, no, no. It needs to be there so that we can enjoy each moment of joy in the movie because it’s joy despite the awareness of the fleeting nature of our existence.”

He continued, surmising:

“I think that’s why people are responding to it in the pandemic era. It’s a love letter to holding onto each other while we can when we can’t very much. And it’s a love letter to solidarity in crisis. It’s a hopelessly romantic notion of mine, but infusing it with the honesty when dealing with death in a clear and open way I knew would pay off. The smiles you have during the movie are there because you know what it costs and what’s at stake.”

THE DIG begins streaming on Netflix on January 29.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.