‘The Dig’: Film Review

Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes head the cast of ‘The Dig,’ Simon Stone’s period drama about the excavation of an ancient burial site on an English estate as World War II looms, also featuring Lily James and Johnny Flynn.

Class as much as gender constraints obscured the achievements of 19th century English paleontologist Mary Anning, magnificently played by Kate Winslet in Francis Lee’s slow-burn elemental love story Ammonite. And class barriers continue to marginalize the work of Ralph Fiennes’ self-taught archeologist Basil Brown almost a century later in The Dig. Simon Stone’s account of the revolutionary 1939 discovery of a burial chamber that shed new light on the Dark Ages takes a somewhat awkward swerve midway from what’s primarily a two-character piece into a larger ensemble drama, somewhat diffusing the emotional center. But the storytelling is laced with a gentle thread of melancholy that makes this Netflix feature quite affecting.

Adapted by playwright and screenwriter Moira Buffini from the 2007 novel by John Preston, the retelling takes some liberties by flipping the age difference of the real-life principal characters, perhaps to fortify a whisper of quasi-romance in their encounter. Fiennes is almost a decade older than Brown was at the time of his historic find, while Carey Mulligan is 20 years younger than her character Edith Pretty, the wealthy woman who was in her mid-50s when she hired Brown to excavate the ancient burial mounds on her Suffolk estate, Sutton Hoo.

The Bottom Line

Not an entirely smooth disinterment but satisfying all the same.

RELEASE DATE Jan 15, 2021

Audiences who savored Mulligan’s audacious dive into a psychologically complex contemporary character in Promising Young Woman might be a tad let down to see her back so soon in the sensible cardigans and frocks of tasteful British period drama. But there’s a lovely delicacy to her work here.

Edith’s unfailing respect for Basil, a farmer dismissed as “unorthodox and untrained” by the archeology experts at the Ipswich Museum, and her intellectual kinship with the rough-edged autodidact bring depth and poignancy to their rapport. The fact that she got a place at London University but her late father wouldn’t hear of her going gives her insight into the ways in which Basil has been shut out of the scientific establishment despite his sharp, eager mind.

Buffini’s script establishes from the outset that despite Basil’s working-class outsider position in a field dominated by educated toffs, he’s no pushover. He declines Edith’s initial lowball offer to work on the project and returns only when she agrees to pay him what he’s worth. The widowed estate owner is perhaps partially swayed in his favor by Basil’s warmth toward her young son Robert (Archie Barnes), who bonds with the tweedy old chap over their shared loved of astronomy.

When Basil’s former Ipswich Museum bosses (Paul Ready, Peter McDonald) attempt to hire him back to work on a Roman villa excavation, he chooses instead to remain in Mrs. Pretty’s employ. A quiet exchange between them about “digging down to meet the dead” reveals an affinity in their thoughts on the ties between past and present, particularly as rumblings of war with Germany cast a shadow across the future. A near-fatality at the Sutton Hoo site seems to reaffirm their connection, but an invitation from Edith to dine at the house is impeded by an unexpected visit from Basil’s devoted wife May (Monica Dolan).

A mild sense creeps in of the dreaded “based on a true story” claim being undermined by what seem like fabricated hints of thwarted romance between Edith and Basil, with that aspect amplified by the heart condition that makes her increasingly frail. But the actors ensure that the characters’ integrity is never compromised, and Stone shows pleasing restraint.

The Dig shifts gears when Basil’s findings reinforce his early impression that the earth might yield remains dating back further than the Vikings, which turn out to be an Anglo-Saxon ship, hauled up on land to bury a warrior or king. That momentous discovery draws renewed attention from the Ipswich contingent, whose offer to take over the excavation Edith rejects. But the arrival of Charles Phillips (Ken Stott), an arrogant snob from the British Museum, proves harder to brush off once he declares the site to be of national cultural interest and places it under Ministry control.

Buffini doesn’t entirely escape the lure of deluxe, Downton Abbey-type historical soap as a mini-swarm of new characters converge on the pretty landscape, bringing more repressed emotions. Chief among them are Edith’s dashing free-spirited cousin Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn), who has enlisted in the Royal Air Force; Stuart Piggott (Ben Chaplin), a younger archeologist brought on board by Phillips; and Stuart’s wife Peggy (Lily James). Despite the latter’s academic interest and hunger for field experience, she’s disconcerted to learn she was included mainly because her slender frame makes her less likely to damage the fragile ancient vessel as they continue digging.

A secondary plot threatens to take over when it’s revealed that Peggy is rarely troubled in the bedroom and Stuart gets visibly jollier around Phillips’ reedy young associate Brailsford (Eamon Farren). When the two men head off to do lab work on some relics, the yearning glances between Peggy and Rory make it safe to assume where things are headed. But the drama never becomes trite or overly sentimental, even if Stefan Gregory’s tinkling score sometimes pushes those limits.

That’s in large part because the script and actors allow each of the characters their dignity. This is particularly true of Chaplin and James, who have a tender reckoning, and even more so of the wonderful Dolan’s May, a woman who may not be a great match of the minds with Basil but more than compensates with her perceptiveness and her stirring belief that his contribution must not be overlooked. The interactions of Mulligan’s Edith with both May and Peggy, to whom she becomes a kind of supportive big sister even as her own health is failing, provide moments of understated sweetness.

The accelerating threat of war is nicely observed, for instance when Edith is in London for a medical appointment and sees sandbags being packed around historical monuments for protection. Or when a young airman crashes into the nearby broads, bringing a solemn reminder of the dangers Rory is about to face. Making Rory a keen photographer feeds into the theme of capturing fleeting moments as present becomes past and risks being lost to the future. In a reflective moment typical of Fiennes’ measured performance, Basil shares his belief that “We’re part of something continuous. So we don’t really die.”

Like her work on Hulu’s addictively racy Harlots, Buffini laces feminist perspective into her treatment of the women characters without too much contemporary distortion, and tackles the imbalance of British class structures with skill, whether they apply to wealth and position or education.

A lauded Australian theater director with successes in both Europe and the U.S., Stone did a mostly solid job adapting Ibsen for the screen with his 2015 feature debut The Daughter. His work here is conventional and sedate but well-acted and handsome enough to make it a satisfying watch, closing on a resonant note of sadness with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s radio address to the nation announcing Britain’s entry into the war. 

Production companies: Magnolia Mae Films, in association with Clerkenwell Films
Distributor: Netflix (Jan. 15 in limited theatrical; Jan. 29 streaming)
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James, Johnny Flynn, Ben Chaplin, Ken Stott, Archie Barnes, Monica Dolan, Eamon Farren, Paul Ready, Peter McDonald, Arsher Ali
Director: Simon Stone
Screenwriter: Moira Buffini, based on the novel by John Preston
Producers: Gabrielle Tana, Ellie Wood, Murray Ferguson, Carolyn Marks Blackwood
Executive producer: Anne Sheehan
Director of photography: Mike Eley
Production designer: Maria Djurkovic

Costume designer: Alice Babidge
Music: Stefan Gregory
Editor: Jon Harris
Casting: Lucy Bevan
Rated PG-13, 112 minutes