THE DIG (NETFLIX) (2021)
SYNOPSIS: As WWII looms, a wealthy widow (Carey Mulligan) hires an amateur archaeologist (Ralph Fiennes) to excavate the burial mounds on her estate. When they make a historic discovery, the echoes of Britain's past resonate in the face of its uncertain future.
Although there are some historical inaccuracies in what appears to be based on a true story, The Dig remains highly watchable due to the rich layered performances of Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes.
As World War II looms in Britain, a rich widowed Suffolk landowner, Edith Pretty (Mulligan) engages Basil Brown (Fiennes), a self-taught excavator to work on her piece of land to see if there’s anything buried under. Pretty soon, Brown confirms her suspicions, the mounds indeed were burial ground for precious, not seen before Anglo-Saxon artefacts.
Soon it attracted the attention of a snobbish Cambridge archaeologist, Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) and his team members including Peggy Piggott (Lily James) and her husband, Stuart (Ben Chaplin) who insist the site is of national importance and no longer under the jurisdiction of Brown and Pretty.
Dubbed the Sutton Hoo treasures and currently on permanent display at the British Museum, the drama on the other hand is based on a novel by John Preston, nephew of Peggy Piggott. A reimagined tale of course but with the gist of it remains intact.
In fact, there are somewhat two separate storylines, the first being the most crucial, the relationship between Pretty and Brown. The other being mostly imagined or created for the movie is about Peggy and his lover, Rory (Johnny Flynn), the site photographer and cousin of Edith. And like any well-respected English titles, The Dig is told with a deliberate pacing and delicate performances.
There is a somewhat underlying awkward sexual tone, you know the kind that exists in a rich lonely, widow and a talented older man. But the period drama is too classy for such shallow lust. Instead much of the focus is on Pretty’s frailing health and her son, Robert. Pretty is struggling with the pressure of the newly discovered treasure and most importantly the little time she has left with her young son. Mulligan proves she is an extremely compelling actress regardless of the material.
Fiennes’ screen presence is formidable, always providing an air of authenticity and warm especially as the passionate Basil Brown. The drama would have been more meticulous and complete if they have left out the clumsy affair of Peggy and Rory. Stuart who prefers companionship in a fellow male colleague than his beautiful newly-wed wife which in turn led Peggy into a passionate fling. But by making Rory who is getting to be listed into the air force as a hasty love interest just turned the entire subplot into something unremarkable.
The cinematography on the whole is picture perfect and Australian helmer Simon Stone does a marvellous job steering a very classic English production. The Dig is not an archaeologist drama that has Mummy or Viking boats coming alive. It’s simply a rich historical piece that is worth watching despite the flaws mentioned.
Review by Linus Tee