Ken Stott

The Dig

30/01/21

Netflix

The Dig sounds fairly unpromising on paper. It’s based around the excavation of the Sutton Hoo horde – one of the most significant discoveries in British archeological history – and, since we know the eventual outcome of the tale before a single sod of earth has been lifted, it’s all too easy to surmise that this will be a story bereft of any suspense. However, as written by Moira Buffini (based on a novel by John Preston), and directed by Simon Stone, this is nonetheless a compelling story that never fails to hold the attention and, in one particular sequence, will have you holding your breath and crossing your fingers.

It’s 1939 and Great Britain is hurtling irrevocably towards World War 2. Suffolk landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) has long wanted to explore three ancient burial mounds in one of her fields and, to this end, she decides to hire local man, Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes). Brown has years of practical experience in excavation, but not much in the way of qualifications. However, once the little matter of payment has been finalised, he sets to with gusto.

When the excavation begins to yield some promising results, the glowering, overbearing Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) is dispatched by the British Museum to stake their claim on the gradually emerging treasures. Soon, more hands are called to help out with the donkey work. These include Peggy Piggot (Lily James), recently betrothed to Stuart (Ben Chaplin), who, it turns out, isn’t ideal husband material – and Edith’s cousin, Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn), fills in some time while waiting to take up his commission with the RAF. The various characters make up a volatile mixture, and there is an added shot of tragedy when Edith discovers that time is running out in more ways than one…

This is a handsomely-mounted production – the English countryside, thanks to cinematographer Mike Eley, has rarely looked more sumptuous – and Mulligan and Fiennes make a memorable on-screen partnership, she playing her vulnerability for all its worth, and he portraying the kind of stoic, no-nonsense personality that seems to go hand-in-hand with the era. There’s no actual romance between them – Brown is married to the equally steadfast May (Monica Dolan) – yet Pretty and Brown eventually establish a relationship based on mutual respect. Brown does forge a friendship with Edith’s young son, Robert (Archie Baines), built around a mutual interest in star gazing, and the scenes where he counsels the troubled boy are beautifully handled.

Those looking for something to transcend the current glum realities of life, could do a lot worse than clicking the Netflix button, but be warned, there’s a poignant conclusion here that may have some of you reaching for the tissues.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Mercy

09/02/18

The Mercy is a tale of hubris and fallibility, the true-life story of Donald Crowhurst, dreamer and romanticist, who – in 1968 – decided to try his luck in a Sunday Times sailing competition, to circumnavigate the globe. The terms were stringent: the expedition must be solo and, in order to beat the record set by Sir Francis Chichester, non-stop. But none of this could deter Crowhurst, who refused to let reality colour his vision. So what if he didn’t have a boat, or funds, or enough sailing experience? He had faith and ambition; why should that not suffice?

In James Marsh and Scott Z. Burns’ telling, Crowhurst cuts a sympathetic figure. Likably portrayed by Colin Firth, he elicits my compassion, even as he jeopardises everything for his fool’s errand. He wants to win the competition, he says, to publicise his business – a ramshackle outfit, selling his home-made navigational aids and other inventions. And nobody stops him: not his wife (Rachel Weisz), who supports him with an air of resignation, clearly used to indulging his fantasies; not his main sponsor, Mr Best (Ken Stott), who makes him sign over his house and business as collateral, in case he fails. And certainly not ambitious local reporter and opportunist, Rodney Hallworth (David Thewlis), who uses Crowhurst’s mission to boost his own career.

In the end, though, Crowhurst can’t blame anyone but himself. He submits the entrance papers; he signs the contracts; he even designs his own boat. Alone at sea, daunted by the enormity of the undertaking, he slowly comes to realise that neither he nor the boat is up to the task. But he can’t admit failure; how can he? He is ‘in blood stepped in so far that should [he] wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.’ If he returns, it’s to ruin: everything he has will belong to Mr Best. If he persists, he is unlikely to survive. Desperate, ashamed, he makes a drastic plan. He’ll lie.

From hereon in, the film becomes a stark portrayal of a man’s decline. Eaten by shame and humiliation, Crowhurst begins to lose his mind. And, when he realises that his lies will be exposed, he sees no way out other than to commit suicide. It’s a desperately miserable end, so pointless, so avoidable. But it’s such a human tale, and told with such warmth, so mercifully, that it’s compelling in its sadness.

Make no mistake, this is a slow and ponderous film. The very nature of the story means that much of what we see is just a man on a boat – however gorgeously it’s shot. But Crowhurst’s unravelling tells us much about humanity, and it’s a fascinating insight into a frail psyche.

3.9 stars

Susan Singfield