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
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.
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.
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
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.