‘The Dig’ Uncovers Emotion but Fails to Reach Deeper Layers

A still from 'The Dig'. Edith (Carey Mulligan) is shown in close-up to the left of the image. It is pre-WW2 England in the countryside. Edith in picking at a mound of soil to the right of the image. In the centre of the image in the distance is Basil (Ralph Fiennes), holding a spade. Both characters are in 1930s clothing.
Netflix

Based on a true story, The Dig focuses on Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), a self-taught excavist, who is hired by Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) to excavate burial mounds on her land in Suffolk, England, as the threat of a second World War looms. The film adapts plot elements from the novel of the same name by John Preston, nephew of Margaret “Peggy” Guido, which dramatizes the events with a degree of literacy license—some changes ‘have been made for dramatic effect’.

This is evident in the film adaptation, as the understated plot and characters are translated to screen with beautiful cinematography, nuanced performances and a poignant screenplay. The style of the film is a homage to British heritage cinema with strong attention to period detail in costuming, direction highlighting lonely English countryside splendor, and slices of life from pre-WWII Britain. The film experience is solemn and calming, supported by a gentle score and stunning cinematography. The combination of lens-flares and low horizons represents not only a nostalgic awe for the British countryside, but also the film’s merging of themes in earth and space. 

The plot opens with intrigue as to what the characters will discover in the dig at Sutton Hoo, and thankfully is accessible to viewers who aren’t experts in archeology. At times, however, the story’s attempts to reach a wider audience distract—the introduction of an underdeveloped romantic storyline involving supporting characters in the second act leads to less screen-time for our main characters and the core plot. 

It is interesting to see the film acknowledge the ethics behind excavation, with the film’s production coinciding with modern developments and protests in the field of global archaeology. There has been an emergent focus on the reinstatement of stolen artefacts to their home countries in the 21st century, from the Benin Bronzes to the Elgin Marbles. This has been translated to screen, including in Ryan Coogler’s blockbuster Black Panther shortly before The Dig began production. The film explores these tensions, with the snobbish and entitled Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) arguing for the artefacts’ relocation to the British Museum, whilst the more empathetic Edith Pretty (Mulligan) reminds both the characters and viewers that the discovery is a gravesite and should be respected.

A still from 'The Dig'. Basil (Ralph Fiennes) is stood at the base of an excavation, smoking a pipe. He is wearing 1930s clothing: tweed pants, white linen shirt and a beige waistcoat with a hat. At the top of the dig mound is Edith (Carey Mulligan) and her son, she is clutching him from behind, looking down into the site.
Netflix

The theme of mortality, and the transience of life in the face of history, run throughout the film. The recurring reminders of the looming dread of war are frequent; the tranquility of the English countryside is pierced by the wireless radio, and at one stage the physical intrusion of a crashed pilot. The characters are attempting to recover the past at a time when their present feels in crisis—almost at an end. It reminds the viewer that time and history must keep moving forward.

The film also touches on the class-system of the period, and the struggles Brown (Fiennes) faced being a self-taught excavationist and less respected in the field. The story highlights his intelligence, publishing and skills, and yet is painted as inexperienced and lesser by the men claiming an ‘archeologist’ role. The convincing performance by Fiennes reiterates Brown’s fear of losing the credit for this discovery, and this is realised both in the film and in the true story; Basil Brown’s work at this site was erased when documented. The retelling of his story is another example of recovering history.

The characterisations in this film are particularly memorable, and a particular highlight is Carey Mulligan’s performance, which demonstrates her range of talent. Her subtle, yet powerful, portrayal making the distant character of a middle-class military widow feel relatable in its empathy and humanity. She physically conveys complex underlying grief and pain, flawlessly highlighting the deterioration of Edith throughout each scene. She begins the film energetic and warm, but by the time the film reaches its conclusion, she is breathless, misanthropic and frail. 

The Dig is comfortably melancholic, and the simplicity of its plot and strong cast add to its charm. In its recovery of Basil’s real story, the film uncovers emotional and philosophical depth, however could perhaps have dug deeper. Its nostalgic beauty provides a welcome escape from current events, but the looming threat of war reminds the viewer that time is fleeting and crisis is never far away.

The Dig is available to stream exclusively on Netflix now

by Bethan Hilton

Bethan (she/they) is a film lover and media masters graduate from Liverpool, UK. She is a devoted Disney enthusiast, and has watched The Lion King almost 500 times. Bethan is the biggest fan of Domhnall Gleeson you’ll ever meet. When she isn’t watching films, she’s probably playing The Sims.
Find over on Twitter & Letterboxd.

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