The story of “The Dig” takes place in May 1939, when the UK is about to declare war against German, archaeologist Basil Brown, hired by an upper-class widower Edith Pretty to dig up her property in Suffolk, discovered an 88-foot ship buried underground dated back to the Anglo-Saxon period. Then, an archaeological team joined the dig, they discovered artifacts and tools in the ship. After the war, Pretty donated the artifacts to the British Museum, known as the greatest discovery in recent history, or “ Sutton Hoo find.”
This true story was adapted into John Preston’s novel “The Dig,” and now the novel has its film adaptation by director Simon Stone and screenwriter Moria Buffini, sharing the same title and available on Netflix this week. Having Ralph Fiennes plays Basil and Carey Mulligan plays Edith, “The Dig” opens with Basil arriving at a huge remote estate and meeting the owner Edith and her young son Robert (Archie Barnes). Edith and her husband bought the land, and after her husband passed away, she decides to hire someone to dig up the mounts on her property out of her curiosity. While Basil is digging up the place with a little hope, Robert sees him as a new father figure.
Basil’s work starts with a small group including Edith’s cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn), but after the skeleton of the ship is revealed, people from museums and institutions come to join the dig, wanting to take some credits from it. Enter Charles Phillips (Ken Stott), an authoritative archaeologist who aims to take over the digging site from Basil, and his professional team including Stuart (Ben Chaplin) and his new-marriage wife Peggy (Lily James). The plot loses a little bit as people argue who owns the credits, where the artifacts belong, and Peggy’s dissatisfaction with her marriage and the romance with Rory.
Despite the ensemble thicken the plot for a while, “The Dig” has incredible details on the process of the dig. These are the expert details that matter the most, and at the same time, help audiences with zero knowledge to understand what’s going on. As the war is approaching, fighter planes fly over the land regularly, and people know once the war starts, the dig will be suspended, the film creates a feeling of urgency. The great discovery might be the last beauty on the field before the tragic WWII.
The need-for-speed-digging is thrilling to watch, while the relationship between Basil and Edith is a triumph of humanity. The wealthy Edith and working-class Basil are from two entirely different worlds, but they share the same interest in archaeology and passion for knowledge. Mulligan, undoubtedly one of the greatest actresses among her generation, is a wonder in “The Dig.” Edith has a heartbreaking backstory, barely described in conversations with a few lines, but you can see the sadness all over Mulligan’s expression. It’s very likely Mulligan will be nominated as Best Actress in this awards season with her comic performance in “Promising Young Woman,” yet in “The Dig,” her portrayal of Edith will haunt you with her loss and loneliness.
With the suburb performance from Fiennes and Milligan, director Stone poetically transits the dig into a metaphor of existential questions. Who owns the history? How we will be remembered after decease? How the memory of love can be passed through ages? What is our purpose in the infinite cosmic timeline?
Shooting very close to the actual “Sutton Hoo find” location in the magic hour gives “The Dig” an arresting Terrence-Malick-ish visual style. Director Stone delivers the story with warmness, beauty, and nostalgia. It’s a classic British drama that gently finds the true wonder from an ordinary human tale.
- Distributor: Netflix
- Production: Netflix and Magnolia Mae Films
- Director: Simon Stone
- Writer: Moira Buffini
- Producer: Carolyn Marks Blackwood, Murray Ferguson, Gabrielle Tana, and Ellie Wood
- Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Carey Mulligan, Archie Barnes, Johnny Flynn, Ben Chaplin, and Lily James
- “The Dig” opens in select theaters Jan. 15 and on Netflix Jan. 29, 2021
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