Way back in the 1990s and into the early 2000s, there seemed to be a succession of films out of the UK that usually revolved around a mission of some sort—raising money to save a building or making sure a local landmark maintained its glorified status or whatever the hell the men in The Full Monty were doing. Weirdly enough, that brand of leisurely paced British film seems to have faded away as the frenetic, hyper-stylized works of Edgar Wright and Guy Ritchie began to dominate the landscape. I’m not saying it’s a good or bad thing, but I do remember liking a great number of those earlier movies, which is why I believe I found myself so drawn in to the based-on-a-true-story tale The Dig.
With Britain on the brink of entering World War II, the nation’s resources and attention are pulled in wartime directions. But at Sutton Hoo estate in Suffolk, owner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) believes there is something important buried within mounds of earth on her property. She hires an excavator named Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), who is not acknowledged as a professional archeologist but knows more about ancient ruins than most trained experts at the British Museum.
As in most British films, class comes into play as Brown’s discoveries begin to get the attention of both a local museum and eventually the British Museum itself, which sends an emissary in the form of Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) and a few archeologists who threaten to take over the dig and send Brown on his way. But when the widow Pretty and her young son Robert (Archie Barnes) protest, Brown is allowed to stay on and become invaluable to the project, which is revealed to be a medieval burial mound that includes an entire, undisturbed ship and a wealth of Anglo-Saxon artifacts, clearly a grave site for an important figure.
In addition to the primary work at hand, The Dig features all manner of subplots, including the fact that Mrs. Pretty is dying of a heart condition stemming from a childhood illness. Her cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn) is helping with the dig, counting down the days until he is called up by the Royal Air Force. Mr. Brown’s wife Mary (Monica Dolan) misses him when he’s away but insists that he ask for a raise and credit when the museum finally does take over the excavation; while married archeologists Stuart (Ben Chaplin) and Peggy Piggott (Lily James) don’t seem to get along because he’s obviously gay and she’s obviously got the hots for cousin Rory. The soap opera nature of these side stories might appeal to the Downton Abbey crowd, but some of them are somewhat distracting from the far more interesting historical and science-based elements of the story.
Actor-turned-director Simon Stone (The Daughter), working from a screenplay by Moira Buffini (adapted from John Preston’s novel), does an impressive job taking this 1938 discovery, which effectively rewrote the history of Britain, and extracting actual suspense and excitement around what is essentially men and women methodically digging around in the dirt. There’s a bit of in-fighting about who has the rights to what is found at the site, but aside from that, everyone is working toward a common goal, and they share in the achievement and thrill of the find—at least in the moment they do; history wasn’t quite done with Brown after this dig concluded.
It’s incredible watching Mulligan play such a reserved character with a proper British accent so soon after seeing her as a splashy American in Promising Young Woman (hitting theaters locally for the first time this weekend), but it’s equally awe-inspiring to see Fiennes as a slightly mumbly, reclusive workhorse of a man who cares more about the work than the prestige (although he’s a stickler for proper credit for work done). The pair are the finest actors of their respective generations, and watching them simply never gets tiresome; often, it’s revelatory. They transform what could have been a mundane historical drama and make it gripping and fully entertaining.
The Dig is most definitely a learning experience, but it’s also a chance to observe a place that seemingly stands apart from the rest of the country it exists in and watch how it gets pulled slowly into a war that devastated everyone. The film feels uniquely British in many respects, but its story about the little guys winning the respect of the establishment feels universal. I liked this movie and all of its quirks quite a bit.
The film opens on January 29, theatrically at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema and streaming via Netflix.
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