A visually stunning masterpiece, The Dig hits all the right notes to become an instant success. Directed by Simon Stone, The Dig tells the story of Basil Brown’s (Ralph Fiennes) remarkable discovery in 1939. Later named the Sutton Hoo site, his excavation uncovered a burial ship dating back to the Dark Ages, unearthing key evidence to suggest this period in history was not so dark after all; a fact known by few. Hidden from history for far too long, both this film and the book it is based on seek to shed light on his astounding contribution to human history, as well as right the wrongs done to him when his name was allowed to fade from memory.
Opening on Brown’s arduous journey to the land he would later excavate, we are thrown straight into the action (so to speak), as we meet Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) and learn of her history, both with the land whose mystery she seeks to uncover and the husband who shared her dreams of doing so.
Passionate about archeology but limited by physical strength and skill, Pretty is determined to hire the best if she can’t do the job herself. Recognising a fellow dreamer in Brown, she hires him to work on the site, bonding with him over similar childhoods and a shared, inextinguishable love for history. Their relationship proves vital as the plot progresses, providing a subplot for The Dig to repeatedly return to.
A simple, largely uneventful story (by which I mean: expect no explosions, gory deaths or world-ending heartbreak), The Dig is a surprising delight. After a year of endless disasters both on screen and off, I find myself utterly charmed by the relatively drama-free plot. It’s 112 minutes of mud, rain and archaeological wonders, and this writer, for one, finds it glorious.
With such an uneventful plot, audiences are able to focus on performance over production, and rewardingly so. Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes are spectacular as the film’s leads, providing understated, touching, yet wonderfully layered performances. Meanwhile, Monica Dolan, Johnny Flynn, and Lily James all provide fantastic support, adding cheer and warmth to offset the leads’ gravity and reservation.
Set against the backdrop of the impending second world war, the audience is constantly reminded of the events that are soon to follow. Like a cloud that lingers and blocks the sun, the promise of war haunts the film, its shadow casting dark lines over the events and characters. For none more so than Pretty, whose husband was taken by the war and left her widowed and a single mother; past trauma and a fearful anticipation of the future create the necessary tension to propels the story forward.
While The Dig centres on Basil Brown’s story – and rightly so after the many years he was denied his due credit – Mulligan is a scene-stealer. A fascinating mix of weakness and strength, vulnerability and grit, her character is a figure who seems to fight more battles than anyone else, clinging onto control even as it slips through her fingers. The best kind of female character, she is resilient, independent and delightfully complex. Few actors could make such an emotionally withdrawn character as likeable as Mulligan manages to. Coloured by grief yet undefeated, she is a woman at war with the world, even as a real war looms in the distance.
It is a shame then, that a film which gets so many things right still makes the most obvious mistake of all: adding superfluous love stories. The Dig commits this sin when it shoves a love story at us at the 11th hour, hoping to convince us that the threat of war is enough to drive Peggy into Rory’s (Flynn) arms (and bed) once the excavation is completed despite having spoken fewer than ten words to each other. A random, ridiculous romance, its only saving grace is how short-lived it is, making it blissfully forgettable. Small mercies, I suppose.
It is no wonder that The Dig is enjoying such success at the moment, having trended in the top ten on Netflix since the day it was released. With gorgeous costumes, pleasing cinematography and a cast whose performances are sure to entrap you, this is a film easy to overlook, but irresistible once started. It is simple, pleasing and a reminder that all things shall pass. This is a film worthy of your attention.
Watch The Dig on Netflix now.