Director: Simon Stone
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James, Johnny Flynn, Ben Chaplin, Ken Stott, Archie Barnes, Monica Dolan
Running Time: 112 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
While watching Simon Stone's biographical British drama The Dig, it's not hard at all to believe it's based on a true story. It tells us as much in the opening minutes, and even while creative liberties are taken, there's something about the delivery that feels particularly authentic, regardless of names and dates. Some may view that as a turn-off, or sign they're going to endure a stuffy period piece lacking the momentum or excitement to grab their attention, but it's nearly impossible not to get caught up in the characters' enthusiasm. Because they care so much about the title adventure and we ultimately grow invested in what happens to them, it succeeds, harkening back to a time where mid-range adult dramas were a big draw simply due to quality alone.
With pitch perfect performances, memorable cinematography from Mike Eley and a criminally overlooked Stefan Gregory score, it's almost as if this was released in the wrong era. Despite having been nominated for four BAFTA's, it's still hard to argue that if this came out in the mid to late 90's it would be screening next to The English Patient, Secrets and Lies or Waking Ned Devine at the local arthouse multiplex. And it would probably be among the five Best Picture nominees, while likely racking up additional acting nods for its cast.
Being that it's instead 2021, a prestige film like this now just basically drops on Netflix with very little promotion. And that's not entirely a criticism considering it may not have otherwise seen the light of day at all given the current film climate. Nor is this some passionate defense of The Dig as an unheralded masterpiece because, on the whole, it's just fine. But boy is it ever just about the most comfortable thing you could hope to land on when scrolling through your queue. It's like wrapping yourself in a warm blanket for almost two hours, without worry the filmmaker will suddenly start making wrongheaded decisions or take the material to places it can't or shouldn't go. Given the circumstances, that's an achievement.
On the eve of World War II in 1939, Suffolk, England landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) hires local excavator and archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to dig at the burial mounds at her estate in Sutton Hoo after both agree on a fair wage. With his former employers attempting to get him to abandon the project for work they've deemed more important, Brown and his assistants soon unearth the remnants of a ship, with him suggesting it could be the possible burial site of someone of high class or great nobility.
As Brown forms a fatherly bond with Edith's imaginative young son Robert (Archie Barnes) and her cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn) joins the dig, noted archaeologist Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) crashes the site, determined to wrestle control from Edith and Brown. Taking over with his own team, including a relatively inexperienced Peggy Pigott (Lily James), a major discovery is made, forcing Edith to make some important choices, even as her health rapidly begins to decline.
Managing to walk the the extemely thin line of delivering exactly what's expected while having just enough surprises up its sleeve, Moira Buffini's screenplay (adapted from John Preston's 2007 novel), stays tightly focused on this escavation's historical implications, as well as the personal ones for those directly involved. After an initial feeling out process between Edith and Brown, an early accident at the site ends up framing their friendship and motivations from that point forward. After that, she quickly realizes he's the right man for this job, regardless of the lack of respect he receives from his archaeological peers, mostly due to ignorance and jealousy.
Having lost her husband and trying to raise a son while struggling with an undisclosed condition, Edith turns to Brown as kind of a surrogate companion. With him ignoring letters from his own wife, May (Monica Dolan) and spending nearly all of his time with Edith and young Robert, we start wondering where this relationship's going. But the movie's smarter than that. May couldn't be any more supportive of the bond he's formed with them, despite her feeling he's overworked. It's a nice reversal of expectations while also managing to be completely logical. And it's through Edith and Brown's shared discovery that we realize just how damaged she is, with this undertaking clearly giving her the only glimmer of hope and personal sense of purpose she's had in years. It feels right that this is as far as it will go for them, especially considering the film already has a romantic sub-plot that works exceptionally well.
Following her Oscar-nominated turn in Promising Young Woman, it could have been jarring to see Mulligan back doing the period pieces her against type role in that film proved to be a welcome respite from. But it instead only serves to further showcase her versatility in tackling a part that was originally intended for an older actress, more closely matching the fifty-something Edith Pretty was at the time. Fortunately, none of that matters in relation to the narrative and few could have played this as well as Mulligan does. Edith's no pushover, and even as the pressure mounts and the actress effectively conveys a marked physical deterioration in this woman's appearance and demeanor, her loyalty to son Robert and Brown perservere, partially stemming perhaps from regrets over an abandoned archaelogical career.
Similarly, Fiennes scenes opposite Mulligan and the boy really resonate, with Brown charging forward despite being undermined at every turn by beaurocrats wanting a piece of his discovery. Ken Stott plays the film's biggest blowhard, Phillips, whose lack of knowledge is matched only by his elitist snobbery and frequently incorrect deductions about the project. Lily James appears about an hour in but quickly makes up for lost time as Peggy, dragged along by Phillips and husband Stuart (Ben Chaplin) only because her small stature won't disrupt the site. It's the first of many microagressions she endures from the men on the project, most notably her husband. While having a star at James' level show up so deep into the story is a curious decision, she conveys everything we need to know about this nervous, bespectacled woman in only a matter of minutes.
Trapped in a loveless marriage, it's clear where things are going for Peggy as she falls for Edith's cosuin Rory and must battle all these insecurities in the face of this epiphany that she needs to leave her controlling, apathetic husband. With Peggy's feelings slowly bubbling under the surface until finally breaking through. when that moment comes, it's surprising just how emotionally resonant it is, largely due to James' invaluable performance. Seemingly, out of nowhere, she becomes as essential to the film's success as Mulligan's or Fiennes, with the sub-plot also achieving its goal of stirring something in Mulligan's character as she comes to terms with her own mortality. In Peggy, Edith finds a younger counterpart she can mentor and perhaps encourage to take the risks she failed to, with Buffini's script presenting much of that as subtext since the two actresses don't share more than a couple of scenes together. Stone's direction compliments that with restraint, gliding along effortlessly in not telling us how to think or feel and just letting these actors take us there.
It's a relief to know it's possible for screen adaptations to make adjustments a true story that make sense and have those decisions actually enhance the source material. They unquestionably shifted details around, changed characters and added events, but all of these choices were good ones that made for a far better experience than a straight re-telling would. Of course, the irony is that some may still find this too dry, but for fans of these kinds of humanistic dramas, it hits all the right notes.
That The Dig could be watched repeatedly becomes that much more of a
compliment when you realize it doesn't do anything necessarily
special that sets it apart from past releases of a similar ilk. But from start to finish, it's just an absorbing story, solidly made and
intelligently told. Sometimes that's enough, as certain
unremarkable qualities that would cause it to blend in with the pack ten or
twenty years ago only serve to make it stand out that much more today.