Ralph Fiennes: ‘English society is built on hierarchies’

The actor on playing a high-achieving, under-recognised archeologist, and English society

It seems scarcely possible that an Australian directed The Dig. Simon Stone’s mist-wreathed drama hangs around precise class gradations that once formed the skeleton of English society. It celebrates a quiet, undervalued hero who, as the second World War loomed, (literally) dug up icons of an indifferently understood past. Nobody says much about their feelings. The Dig could hardly be more English.

Ralph Fiennes is magnificent as the self-taught archaeologist and astronomer Basil Brown, who, in 1939, discovered and helped excavate a huge Anglo Saxon burial mound at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. An entire ship was found in what may have been King Rædwald of East Anglia's last resting place. The Sutton Hoo helmet, now on display at the British Museum, has become a defining image of England's Anglo Saxon past.

Yet Brown, a sometime employee of Ipswich Museum, has been little celebrated to this point. As the film explains, Edith Pretty, widowed owner of the land, invited him onto the site and resisted when archaeological nobs from London tried to edge him aside.

Winter Nights

Stone has taken certain liberties in his casting. Brown was, like Fiennes, in his 50s. But the 35-year-old Carey Mulligan is more than two decades younger than Mrs Pretty at the time. You know how the movies work. A female actor needs to be 20 years younger than any middle-aged male co-lead if some slight erotic frisson is to be suggested (there is only a little of that here to be fair).

Moira Buffini’s script does seem to get the class distinctions right. More often seen as characters from the big house, Fiennes flattens his vowels and lowers his brow to great effect. Mind you, he is from that part of the world. Ralph and his busy five siblings – including actor Joseph and film-maker Sophie – spent much of their childhood in Cork and Kilkenny, but he was born in Ipswich and had his early education there before moving on to Newtown School in Waterford.

“I didn’t think I had any sense of where I would end up when I was a child,” Fiennes tells me. “I was fascinated by African animals, wildlife generally. And history. When I was in my late teens I thought I wanted to be an artist, and then I switched to acting. When I was a child I was just was interested in in animals and history.”

Basil Brown is expected to kowtow because he speaks with a regional accent and he hasn’t been to the right university. I wonder if England is quite so class-ridden as it was in 1939. Some actors would certainly say as much.

“I don’t think so,” he says cautiously. “I don’t think that particular sense of prejudice or class judgment based on how someone speaks is so present. But I may be wrong. I think there are other prejudices. And certainly we are confronting those now in the UK. There are big questions about the history of race in England. There is a history of the colour of someone’s skin evoking prejudice. I think we’re dealing with that. Look at recent events in America. Look at Black Lives Matter.”

Fiennes is something of a cautious interviewee. He doesn't fling himself into answers like a great anecdotalist of old but thinks carefully about what he says. As he chats on, he offers variations on his initial thoughts. No harm to Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne, Dominic West, Tom Huddleston and the rest, but the acting profession has never been so dominated by alumni of the top English "public" schools. Class is still an issue.

“I think it is an uncomfortable truth that English society is built on these strata – these hierarchies,” Fiennes says with a tack. “I sense that enlightened people – people with a sense of the future – are wanting to progress away from that. I think there’s a drive and there’s activism to break down these traditions. But, yes, I think they still linger. I think what moved me about the film was that the central relationship between Edith and Basil. Quite quickly there’s a sense of trust and friendship that transcends any class difference.”

Pretty died young (though not so young as the Mulligan version would have been) only three years after the incidents depicted in The Dig. Brown lived a long and fruitful life. He was born in 1888 and died 89 years later, when James Callaghan was prime minister and the Sex Pistols weren't exactly number one. The author of two books on astronomy, he continued to dig quietly after the war, contributing to the discovery of Norman remains at Rickinghall in north Suffolk. No medals came his way. No statue has been erected in his honour. He does, at least, now have recognition in a Netflix release. That counts as a contemporary tribute of some magnitude.

“By the time I joined the production I knew quite a lot about him,” Fiennes says. “But when I was first shown the script by Gabby Tana, who produced the film – this was about 3½  years ago – I didn’t know anything, I knew the most basic, crude facts about Sutton Hoo. When I read the script I wasn’t sure whether they were real people or fictitious. Although there are fictional elements in the film, the essential story of Basil is much pretty much based in the facts. I got excited by this man.”

For all the class barriers in British society, there is a tradition of dedicated, self-taught individuals making a place for themselves in the arts and sciences. TH Huxley left school at 11; William Blake barely went to school at all; Michael Faraday's father was a blacksmith.

'People always think about the beautiful Roman pot coming out of the ground. They don't realise that archaeology is hours and hours and hours of lifting dirt and earth'

“The fact that he was largely self-taught, very clever, was obsessed with archaeology within the Suffolk area – where he grew up and where he wrote a book about the history of astronomical charts – attracted me,” Fiennes says. “He, I believe, taught himself French, German, some Latin in order to know what he was writing about and communicate with people who were experts in these charts throughout Europe. And he went on being an archaeologist. So I had the most enriching and rewarding time researching him.”

One gets the sense that Fiennes has now become the world's most ardent Basil Brown evangelist. The actor has burrowed deep into the archives and made himself a friend to the late expert. He has acquainted himself with the strain, the dedication and the dirt. The research also helped Fiennes reconnect with his own family. His dad, Mark Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, was a distinguished illustrator. Jennifer Lash, his mother, was a noted painter and novelist.

“I guess it gave me a sense of reconnection to the memory of my father, who was a passionate gardener,” he says. “And I don’t have a garden to speak of. I think suddenly I reconnected with the value of creating positive and creative physical work.

“In fact, I have a foster brother who has been an archaeologist. I remember him always saying: ‘It’s a lot of labour.’ People always think about the beautiful Roman pot coming out of the ground. They don’t realise that archaeology is hours and hours and hours of lifting dirt and earth. I think the reality of that is probably the thing that came through to me most strongly.”

Did Fiennes get any sense that Brown resented his lack of recognition? The British Museum now recognises the contribution, but there was little of that when the exhibits first went on display.

“It is true that Basil was sidelined by the establishment,” he says. “But he was kept on and his work was acknowledged. At some level he was wounded. But there was a bigger common purpose, which was to get this stuff out of the ground.”

Fiennes has created plenty of memorable roles. He should have won an Oscar for his Amon Göth in Schindler's List. He could plausibly have won another for Charles Van Doren in Quiz Show. He has shown great comedy chops in The Grand Budapest Hotel and In Bruges. Yet he seems to have particular affection for this humble Suffolk archaeologist.

“Um, I, well... There has been maybe one other part that I really loved,” he says cryptically. “But I really loved getting under the skin of Basil.”

Mr Brown has finally arrived.

The Dig streams on Netflix from January 29th.  

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist