A film review by Craig J. Koban February 9, 2021


2021, PG-13, 112 mins

Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty  /  Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown  /  Lily James as Peggy Preston  /  Johnny Flynn as Rory Lomax  /  Ben Chaplin as Stuart Piggott  /  Ken Stott as Charles Phillips  /  Monica Dolan as May Brown  /  

Directed by Simon Stone  /  Written by Moira Buffini, based on the book by John Preston



NETFLIX's new historical drama THE DIG concerns one of the most famous archaeological finds of all time that occurred in Suffolk, England in the late 1930s.  The so-called "Sutton Hoo" treasure that was unearthed at the time included the astounding discovery of an undisturbed ship burial from the 6th to 7th Century and all of the wealth of astonishing artifacts of the era entombed within it.  Often considered to be the most important dig sites and finds in UK history, the items excavated helped to re-shape what historians thought of Anglo-Saxons of the distant past.  The thought of a movie about the ponderous details of, well, an archaeological dig might not seem exhilarating, but THE DIG is most assuredly handsomely shot and produced, not to mention that it features a bounty of fine performances.  The narrative shifts too many gears and focal points for my liking, but THE DIG remains an fairly intoxicating tale of an extraordinary exploratory discovery.   

The film does a solid job of immersing us in the historical particulars from the onset: It's spring of 1939 and England is on the edge of World War II, a threat that casts an awfully large and ominous shadow over everything.  We meet a widow in Edith Pretty (Cary Mulligan, a million miles removed from her work in the recently released PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN), who's deeply determined to get to the bottom of what lurks on the property grounds of her massive Suffolk estate.  She opts to hire excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to launch an examination of the multiple hills sprawled out around her country home, despite not having a vast history with archaeological digs.  As Basil takes to the project with great interest and begins meticulously digging through the various mounds, Edith becomes sicker by the day with a mysterious illness that takes her further away from any hands on supervision.     

Basil seems convinced that what lies beneath those mounds is a treasure trove of Viking artifacts, and as he deeply burrows he soon discovers the sheer scope of his find: the mostly intact skeleton remains a near-100 foot shipping vessel from the Anglo-Saxon period.  All during this Basil begins to strike up a friendship with his employer in Edith, with both of them equally passionate about taking in the monumental historical significance of what was just found.  Of course, word of the ship's discovery spread like wild fire, which made its way to outside national experts, leading to a vast group of scientists coming to the burial site and the Crown itself challenging for assuming control and ownership of it.  Of course, all of this is contested in a race against the clock fashion with the very impending likelihood of England going to war with Germany, which gives THE DIG some level of tangible suspense.  All the parties involved struggle to maintain focus when the thought of the horrors of a war to come bares down heavily on all of them. 



Actually, the palpable tension sprinkled in throughout THE DIG is what helps give it some nice forward momentum early on.  Director Simon Stone does a solid job of evoking the limitless physical challenges of dealing with an archaeological site of such gigantic proportions, and especially with the outside elements constantly thwarting daily progress (one unbelievably intense early sequence showcases a bout of severe weather and a subsequent dirt collapse that nearly buries poor and defenseless Basil alive).  And THE DIG's finest half is undeniably its first, mostly because we get to see the intriguing work dynamic between Basil and Edith at play here, with both of them having their own mindsets about tackling the task at hand (probably born out of coming from very different necks of the woods), but they manage to breach any class barriers because of their shared passion for history and learning about cultures far removed from their own.  This duo wants what all good historians want: A finer understanding of how people of the past lived and how that lead into developments that can be traced to the present.   

It also takes a special kind of directorial ingenuity to make something as potentially glacial like an archaeological dig brim with great visual interest, but cinematographer Mike Ely makes the Sutton exteriors come positively alive with wide angled lens glory.  There's an old school aesthetic grace and opulence to the imagery presented here, and THE DIG becomes rather beguiling odyssey as far as journeys into yesteryear go.  That's also not to say that the film skims over the actual science and physical rigors of the work in question.  Watching THE DIG one gains a pretty invaluable impression of what goes into uncovering finds of this magnitude, which involves a whole lot of patience, perseverance, and a keen eye and delicate hand in terms of bringing up the buried past without damaging what lies in a centuries old tomb.  And this was work...damn hard work...that should be appreciated for what it was, and the makers here are on point in terms of relaying all of the inherent challenges contained within. 

Where THE DIG started to really lose me, though, was in its second half, which is no where near as tightly focused and compelling as the opening half of the story.  During this time the narrative unfortunately disconnects from the core relationship between Basil and Edith and instead introduces us to a menagerie of supporting players (some interesting, some  not so much) that make up a larger excavating team.  Depressingly, both Basil and Edith get quickly delegated to the sidelines of the picture, which seems like a creative miscalculation, especially for how the film segues viewers into subplots and personas that frankly don't command our interest.  Take, for instance, a few new characters thrown in like Peggy (Lilly James), who's an aspiring archaeologist that's somewhat trapped in a go-nowhere and passion-free marriage to Stuart (Ben Chaplin), which culminates in her sexual attraction to Edith's brother in Rory (Johnny Flynn), who's a military man waiting in the wings that could be sent out to combat at the drop of a hat when England joins the war effort.  What comes out here is a disinteresting love story set amidst the backdrop of the main thrust of the whole film -  the gargantuan archaeological dig itself and all of the tantalizing secrets it holds.  Considering the sheer richness of the history unfolding in THE DIG, to see the makers here honing in an ungodly amount of time on soap opera melodrama is detrimental, to say the least, and holds the film back from achieving something special as a period piece. 

This doesn't completely derail THE DIG, in my opinion.  Basil and Edith, as mentioned, remain the emotional epicenter of the film, and their early interplay starts off their shared adventure rather strongly.  That, and Mulligan and Fiennes are routinely superb here, with the latter in particular finding subtle ways of making his mild mannered, but determined scientific mind a quietly potent character.  Plus, watching Mulligan's more reserved and understated turn here makes for a wonderful foil and companion piece to her tour de force performance gymnastics in PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, which, in tandem and watched side by side, really shows what a thanklessly versatile talent she is when given great roles.  And THE DIG dives into some important themes about how cultures of the past were ignorantly perceived and how that can radically change with the introduction of nearly unearthed discoveries.  The then assumptions about Anglo-Saxons were of a deeply primitive nature, but the Sutton Hoo finds proved that they were a people of art and culture all their own.  Good science is about evolving our understanding of something with the adaoption of new information, something that THE DIG wisely understands and portrays.  The film may get may get a little lost in exhibiting that in the process, but its noble intentions and earnest execution makes this historical drama worth exploring.  

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