Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
There can be magic in simplicity. The story at the heart of Simon Stone’s The Dig (released on Netflix) is, indeed, very simple: an archaeologist digs up an important find. But this is a tale that ends up having potency, poignancy and intense charisma behind the curtain. The heartfelt dynamics between the principal characters, an active interest in time and history, death and legacy, and a set of perfectly understated performances help make The Dig truly compelling, despite some difficult missteps later on. This is no instant classic, but remains a remarkably likeable film.
The Dig follows Basil Brown (played by an excellent Ralph Fiennes) as he excavates the legendary Saxon burial ground at Sutton Hoo on the estate of the widowed Edith Pretty. The significance of the find attracts national attention, but the advent of the Second World War lurks just weeks away. The relationship between Basil, Edith, and Edith’s young son Robert is the beating heart of this film, and central to this is Carey Mulligan’s show stopping portrayal of Edith. This is a brilliant actress at the top of her game. It would have been easy to turn Edith into another “repressed Lady Chatterley” type, but the script and Mulligan’s performance elevate this character into something else. She is a sharp and impeccably competent manager of her household, but truly blossoms when she and her bright son are involved in the excavation, with hints of her wasted academic potential lending her character a sense of tragedy. This is accentuated by her vulnerabilities – we are gently shown Edith’s intellectual loneliness and the immense burden, both physically and mentally, of her duties as a widowed mother. With her son Robert, Edith’s interest in archaeology brings them closer to the steadfast, irascible Mr Brown, and as the film progresses, this creates a kind of co-dependent dynamic between these troubled three that feels deservedly poignant and genuinely heartfelt, even heart-breaking, as war looms and Edith’s physical health declines. The Dig takes a simple premise and unveils a complex reality – with great success.
The impending war lies heavily (with as little subtlety as possible) on the conscience of the film, and manages to string together its themes in a way that benefits the film’s plot. As the world lies on the edge of disaster and doom, there is a sense of a race against time to uncover the past, and re-evaluate our lineage, before it can be buried again under another tidal wave of change. This ties in strongly with the characters of Basil, Edith, and Robert, their worries about their legacies and squandered pasts laid bare as they excavate Sutton Hoo, and gives the story a pace and direction that keeps the audience engaged and excited.
Unfortunately, the film has room for side plots, and it’s here where The Dig missteps painfully. As Sutton Hoo is excavated, word spreads and a veritable buffet of new characters ranging from the uninteresting to the caricatured arrive at Edith’s estate. Far too much time is spent on this extra baggage, especially an insipid love triangle between an assortment of minor characters that takes focus away from the central trio of the film. It’s not a disaster, and The Dig is able to see itself to an admirable and tragic finish, but would have been better served by keeping itself as lean and mean as possible.
In general, this is a sharp, likeable film, with some stunning acting and characterisation, even if it doesn’t push the boat out. Despite some late-stage difficulties, The Dig is well worth your attention.
Image: Foreign and Commonwealth Office via Wikimedia Commons