“It speaks, the past.” And it has much to say, if we want to listen. In The Dig, it has a quiet, persistent voice, but one that its main protagonists – especially amateur archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), who utters those words – hear loud and clear, even if their approaches to history come from the opposite ends of the scale. And, while an excavation, with its slow, deliberate pace and painstaking work, may not sound like a natural subject for a film, it’s the perfect setting for an examination of how we live alongside history and how it affects the future.
Based on the excavation of the Sutton Hoo site in Suffolk in 1939, it sees wealthy widow Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) deciding to have one of the large mounds on her estate excavated. Interested in archaeology, and knowing that they’re reputedly of historical significance, she is recommended to Brown (Fiennes) who, despite being untrained, has extensive knowledge and experience of the local land and its history. One of the mounds soon yields an astonishing secret, the shape of an elegant burial ship, complete with Anglo Saxon treasures. But when the British Museum become involved, Brown faces being overshadowed and, with war about to break out against Germany, the race is on to find as much as possible from the site and protect it from possible destruction.
Director Simon Stone takes things at a leisurely pace – the mud and soil are sifted and, when something is uncovered, the process is even more painstaking – but, in truth, we don’t see a huge amount of actual archaeology in the film. Instead, we’re shown the results – the revelation of the burial ship is truly magnificent – and the preservation of the site, with the focus increasingly on the politics surrounding one of the biggest historical finds not just in the UK but in Europe. In parallel, we become involved in the relationships between some of the key players, especially Mrs Pretty and Brown, who share a real meeting of minds because of their love of history and the land. It’s a refreshing change to see a platonic relationship such as theirs take centre stage.
The historical themes, with contemplations on the brevity of life and the constant presence of death, are woven into the fabric of the film. Aside from the excavation itself, there’s the presence of Edith’s much missed husband, discussions between her and late arriving archaeologist Peggy (Lily James) about the fleeting nature of life and grasping opportunities, as well as the shadow of WWII which is about to blight the world all over again. That sense of the past and its never ending influence, the lessons it teaches us if we are willing to listen, never goes away, be it physically manifested in the dig itself or in people’s memories.
But, despite its beautiful cinematography, wistfully low key tone and classy performances from Mulligan and Fiennes, it’s those late arrivals from the British Museum that steer the film off course. The new set of characters, including James, Ben Chaplin and Johnny Flynn turn the final third into a romantic triangle, contradicting the emphasis of the rest of the film. Watching an interesting, engaging film veer off at such a tangent is frustrating and, even though the story is tied up neatly enough at the end, our concentration has wandered sufficiently never to totally return.
Drama, History | Cert: 12A | Netflix | 29 January 2021 | Dir. Simon Stone | Ralph Fiennes, Carey Mulligan, Monica Dolan, Lily James, Ben Chaplin, Johnny Flynn, Ken Stott.