Featuring excellent performances from Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan, this contemplative drama focuses on a real-life archaeological discovery.
January 14, 2021
When Ralph Fiennes first trundles across the screen in The Dig, then starts speaking in a thick Suffolk accent, he's in suitably surly mode, as he needs to be. But, playing forthright, hardworking and under-appreciated excavator Basil Brown, the adaptable Official Secrets, Hail, Caesar!, Spectre and A Bigger Splash star also flirts with overstatement in his initial scenes. Thankfully, Fiennes settles into his role quickly. What starts out threatening to dissolve into caricature — not a charge aimed at the actor very often across his long career — soon becomes a measured, layered and earthy performance that's quietly weighty and moving. The self-taught Basil has spent a lifetime being judged by his voice, demeanour and appearance, and not on his talents and intellect, which Fiennes conveys with a firm but also delicate touch. As he finds his groove, not only while his character shovels dirt but in his conversations with those around him, this 1939-set drama about a real-life archaeological discovery also finds its rhythm with him.
Hired by Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman) to burrow into what appear to be centuries-old burial mounds on her sprawling estate, Basil doesn't unearth any old junk. His kindly employer has always had a feeling about the small hills on her property, as she tells him in one of their friendly, leisurely chats, and her instincts prove more than accurate when they're found to contain Anglo-Saxon relics dating back to the sixth or seventh century. Basil initially dismisses Edith's suggestion about one particular mound; however, he swiftly realises that she too has spent her years being cast aside — due to her gender, not her class — by others. Their discovery on the site now known as Sutton Hoo is immense. It sparks national attention, including from museum head honchos who were barely interested when Edith first went asking for help excavating her property. Indeed, they cared so little about assisting Edith, and what her land might contain, that they fobbed off the job to Basil. The latter was well-recommended, and rightly so, but the way in which he came to be in Edith's employment smacks of men of authority, wealth or both who think they inherently know better than everyone, especially those they consider beneath them.
Telling this tale, The Dig adapts the 2007 novel of the same name by John Preston — exploring Basil's work, Edith's fight to retain both recognition and the items buried deep in her soil, her increasing health woes, and the keen excitement of her primary school-aged son Robert (Archie Barnes, Patrick) as the excavation continues. It also follows the circus that arises when the British Museum's Charles Phillips (Ken Stott, The Mercy) insists on taking over once objects of value are found, and the love triangle that forms between his married employees Stuart (Ben Chaplin, The Children Act) and Peggy Piggott (Lily James, Rebecca) and Edith's airforce-bound cousin Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn, Emma). The latter is the film's least convincing and least necessary element, smacking of pointlessly adding a romantic subplot to ramp up the drama. Still, whether you already know Sutton Hoo's story or you're learning the details for the first time, The Dig nonetheless relays an astonishing chapter of history.
The first half of the 20th century was a staggering time for unearthing the past in general, as the movie nods to when Edith and Basil mention the exhumation of Tutankhamun's tomb in Egypt just the decade prior. That said, spending time at an archaeological site mightn't sound like rich and riveting viewing — but this fascinating feature proves that notion wrong. While The Dig doesn't hone in on the scooping, shovelling and scraping too often, every shot that does leave an imprint. Such images also reinforce the film's broader contemplation of longevity, mortality and legacies, too. This is a movie that steps back into the past, chronicles an extraordinary historical discovery, and ponders the reality that time comes for all things and people. We all hope to leave a mark, to ensure that generations to come know that we once walked this earth, and to live on in the minds of those who follow after us, but the reality is that not everyone gets to. We can't all have our treasures dug up more than a thousand years after our deaths, or have our names etched in the history books for finding someone else's. We can all hope to be remembered by those nearest to us, those dearest to them and so on, though.
As well as its true tale and its ruminative, melancholy undercurrent, The Dig benefits from two important decisions: the casting of Mulligan and Fiennes, and the involvement of Australian theatre director-turned-filmmaker Simon Stone. After the anger and raw energy of Promising Young Woman, Mulligan finds power in restraint here. Arriving back to back, her two recent performances are almost whiplash-inducing; that's how extensively they survey her range. Once Fiennes finds his knack as Basil, he's a source of stoic potency as well. Indeed, Mulligan and Fiennes' scenes together rank among the movie's best, although, making his first feature since 2015's The Daughter, Stone ensures that even the most routine of moments is never dull. The Dig abounds with sun-dappled imagery of Suffolk fields, their green and yellow expanse being carved into one spade at a time, but it's a gorgeously lensed picture in every frame. Stone and cinematographer Mike Eley (who also worked on The White Crow, which was directed by Fiennes) rarely shoot anything within view in the expected manner, resulting in a film that appears the handsome period part, yet also looks and feels fluid and lively. It has a sense of movement, of living, of truly engaging with everything within its view, rather than just peering on. And, while gouging into the land sometimes disinters valuables and sometimes just offers more dirt, this graceful movie proves a consistent gem.
The Dig is currently screening in Brisbane cinemas, and will also stream via Netflix from Friday, January 29.
Image: Larry Horricks/Netflix.