The Dig offers interesting historical drama with unnecessary contrivances.
Staring: Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James, Johnny Flynn, Ben Chaplin, Ken Stott, Archie Barnes, and Monica Dolan
Directed by: Simon Stone
Tagline: Nothing stays lost forever.
In the late 1930s, with the Second World War ominously looming, Edith Pretty, a landowner in Suffolk, hired a self-taught archaeologist, Basil Brown, to excavate some of the several large mounds at her rural estate. The ancient heaps were initially thought to hold intriguing but relatively common Viking era remnants, but the actual significance of the site soon started to become apparent. Brown and his team unearthed a rare 7th century Saxon ship, believed to be the last resting-place of a king, along with many stunning artifacts, all of which are considered among the most important archaeological discoveries and treasures ever found in the United Kingdom.
It’s this story of the excavation of Sutton Hoo that has inspired the new Netflix film The Dig, a poignant drama that offers a beautiful look at this interesting tale but occasionally stumbles on fabricated digressions.
Edith, an ailing widow with a young son, is portrayed here by the ever-wonderful Carey Mulligan, who is significantly younger than the real-life Mrs. Pretty was during these events, but still delivers a lovely performance while the proceedings around her gently ruminate on time and mortality.
Also terrific is Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown, the excavator who is at risk of being side-lined in his own project and denied credit for his efforts amidst the power struggle between the archaeologists.
As long as the movie stays focused on Pretty, Brown, and the excavation, the results are very charming. The historical account behind The Dig may not offer the flashiest narrative but it is still downright fascinating.
Where the film goes off track, however, is in its contrived search for something more melodramatic. That unnecessary detour arrives in the form of a subplot that revolved around the character of Peggy Piggott (portrayed by Lily James), a real-life archaeologist with a fictionalized love life. Her unfulfilling marriage and subsequent affair with a man (Johnny Flynn) who is soon called up to serve in the air force not only detract from the main plot but also feel disrespectful to an acclaimed pre-historian whose contributions to British archaeology went far beyond an imagined romance.
While Simon Stone has put together a film with a fascinating core, solid cast, and beautiful visuals, the artistic licences he takes with the story distract and frustrate instead of amplifying its inherent drama. Perhaps John Preston’s reimagining of the events (the movie is based on his 2007 novel of the same name) isn’t the best lens to look through here. There are so many actual things about the excavation and its participants that the filmmakers could have explored instead and that could have been a lot more rewarding than a gratuitous romance.
Despite its shortcomings though, The Dig remains a touching drama. It is a well-shot and well-acted look into an intriguing account from history, even if it does leave you wishing some of its subject matter had been handled differently.
Rating system: ★Not on your life ★ ½ If you really must waste your time ★★ Hardly worth the bother ★★ ½ Okay for a slow afternoon only ★★★ Good enough for a look see ★★★ ½ Recommended viewing ★★★★ Don’t miss it ★★★★ ½ Almost perfect ★★★★★ Perfection