When I first saw the trailer for The Dig, I was immediately intrigued as I love historical drama, even if it I’m not familiar with the Sutton Hoo excavation of 1939 that shed light into the early Anglo-Saxon period. The film begins with archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes, sporting a Suffolk accent) visits the home of Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), who has been curious about what’s underneath eighteen ancient mounds on her Sutton Hoo estate. Though Brown is considered an amateur archeologist, he’s been working as a paid excavation employee for a provincial museum and has experience uncovering Roman remains.
It’s not clear how long the process took for Basil to discover that something really important has been buried under the ancient mounds for centuries, but it doesn’t seem to have taken him a long time. It’s remarkable given he’s only got two young guys helping him out. The discovery reminds me a bit of when archeologists found the skeletons of Richard III in 2012 under a Leicester parking lot of all places! Now I thought they’d make a film of that by now. Well, the the Plantagenet king’s reign in the late 1400s seems relatively modern compared to the 7th-century Anglo-Saxon ship burial, a period that lacks historical documentation.
Now, the story of excavation itself is pretty simple and perhaps would’ve been better served as a documentary. Filmmaker Simon Stone and screenwriter Moira Buffini based the film out of John Preston’s 2007 novel of the same name and focused on the characters affected by the dig, as much as the excavation project itself. If you’re expecting plenty of action scenes a la Indiana Jones however, well you won’t find much here. In fact, the film moves at an un-hurried yet assured pace.
Like many British period dramas, this film also deals with social class system as well as romance, though handled in a pretty subtle way here. Even though Brown was the one who made the discovery, the professional archaeologists promptly take over the project and he was practically cast aside. He almost quit entirely if it wasn’t for Edith’s young son Robert (Archie Barnes). Interestingly, the two main characters were also seemingly taken over by the new group of characters working on the dig: Charles Phillips (Ken Stott), husband + wife archeological team Stuart (Ben Chaplin) + Peggy (Lily James) and Edith’s cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn). I have to say it was quite distracting at first seeing Chaplin and James as a married couple, given they played father/daughter in Cinderella.
There’s not one but two tentative romance the film tread on. Though there are interesting societal themes being presented here, specifically in the relationship between Stuart and Peggy, it’s all a bit undercooked. I feel like the filmmakers aren’t as invested in them as they are in Edith and Basil’s story. As Edith’s health quickly deteriorates, I can’t help but wishing she’d get a last chance at happiness after being a widow for so long. But ultimately, it’s the blooming friendship and affecting mother-son relationship that brings a sense of joy and hope. Both Fiennes and Mulligan are two of the finest actors working today and they convincingly embody the characters they’re playing. It’s a restrained but effective performance depicting the slow-burn nature of their relationship. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the usually buttoned-up Fiennes so muddy and disheveled, but he’s one of those actors who can disappear into any roles. Young newcomer Archie Barnes is wonderful to watch and provides some of the most emotional scenes of the film.
One thing I noticed about the film’s editor deliberately separates the dialog from the scenes of actors conversing with one another. At first it seemed like an odd technique but it actually adds unexpected dynamic to an otherwise ordinary, even tedious scenes. The filmmaker’s authentic depiction the Suffolk climate and the damp pastoral landscape of the excavation pretty well. It’s as if you can feel the mud, dirt and even smell the sodden grass, which really transport you to that time. The expansive cinematography by Mike Eley showcases the English pastoral countryside beautifully.
Now, one criticism I have is that despite the dig being regarded as one of the most important archaeological discoveries of all time, the film lacks a real genuine suspense nor even excitement overall. There’s also not a strong payoff in the end, other than the text explaining what’s become of the discovery and the people involved. Now, I personally enjoy gentle, slow-paced period pieces, those that some might call ‘painfully polite’ dramas, but I think some might find this movie a bit dull. For those who have the patience, I think there are quite a few gems to appreciate here, and the fascinating historical significance also compels me to read more about Sutton Hoo excavation.
Have you seen THE DIG? Well, what did you think?