In “The Dig,” when various characters make their way out to the location that gives the film its name, the sky is rarely the same. As the story progresses from a one-man job that may or may not validate a widower’s curiosity to a more momentous historical find worth dramatizing over 80 years later, the clouds over Suffolk come and go, with all the corresponding shades overhead.
That simple avoidance of painting this whole tale with a single brush is one key way that director Simon Stone zags against some of the standard pitfalls of historical retellings. (Though, to be clear, the film is not without at least one literal pit fall.) Based on the 2007 John Preston novel of the same name, “The Dig” also takes its cues from the details surrounding the 1939 Sutton Hoo discovery, which found centuries-old remnants of a past civilization buried beneath unassuming mounds on the property of Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan).
In “The Dig,” Edith enlists the help of local amateur archaeology enthusiast Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to see what might be underneath those prominent lumps of earth on her estate. He may not have institutional training, but Brown quickly proves he has both the streetwise knowledge of antiquities looters’ methods and enough historical wherewithal to assess the first fruits of his solo shoveling. In time, his efforts draw both the goodwill of Edith and her son Robert (Archie Barnes).
It’s a testament to Mulligan’s screen presence that Edith feels like an integral part of this process, even as her actual role never goes far beyond “understanding benefactor.” Edith endures her own private physical and emotional battles away from the digging site, while a small crew gradually arrives to take over the lion’s share of the digging duties. In some ways, it’s not until the film shifts its gaze to those newcomers that you realize how much depth comes from Edith and Brown’s simple working relationship at the outset.
Their conversations about the idea of owning history and who has the right to claim credit for its discovery are as much about digging for the truth inside each other as what’s in the ground underneath them. It’s when the film begins to stray from that core relationship, the slight blurring of lines between a woman of means and her hired excavator, that “The Dig” starts to lose some focus and potency. The initial work done by Brown and Edith’s cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn, continuing his post-“Emma.” charm tour) soon draws the attention of the local professional anthropologists.
As different forces become interested in the work at the Sutton Hoo dig, the project becomes a series of navigating tiny gatekeeping hurdles: who is allowed to participate, where various fragments are stored, and where those remnants may find a permanent home. It’s here that the film’s driving force switches from those chats over a single shovel to a more metaphorical exercise about uncovering buried feelings. (“If a thousand years were to pass in an instance, what would be left of us?” asks one character in a moment of blistering melancholy.)
The eventual arrival of the Piggotts, a married couple both keen on assisting in the effort, gives “The Dig” a chance to look at the story from another angle. Stuart (Ben Chaplin) is keen on offering his own archaeological brush to the growing collection, while his wife Peggy (Lily James) is eager to prove that she has more value than as the trailing wife. Despite Chaplin and James’ best efforts, the sparseness that screenwriter Moira Buffini uses so well in Pretty and Brown’s interactions becomes oversimplified when aimed elsewhere. “The Dig” isn’t subtle about what the Piggotts’ participation means for a few of those they’re working with, and those trajectories play out largely as telegraphed.
Taking advantage of the natural textures of that ever-changing sky does smooth over some of the story threads that feel less fleshed out than others. In turn, Stone’s visual instincts help make those Mulligan and Fiennes scenes feel more vibrant, too. Those outdoor tableaus do verge on overindulgent by the film’s end (this crew does seem to have filmed as many sequences at or near sunset as possible), but they help tie these characters to the land in a way that simple overhead shots of the digging site can’t.
It’s also to Buffini’s credit that she acknowledges how this chronicle of a historical discovery is itself situated on a momentous timeline of its own: at the precipice of World War II. These characters don’t regard the looming threat of war as some out-of-nowhere development. The gradual creep of radio bulletins and flyovers help to create the feeling that this dig may be a kind of triumphant last gasp before something terrible on the horizon.
In that way, “The Dig” resists the the kind of obvious triumph that would overtake a lesser film. Whether it’s a mere whiff of romance, the memory of a loved one passed on, or the encroaching consequence of a nation readying for conflict, there’s a bittersweetness to “The Dig” that lingers just as much as the facts of the story.
“The Dig” is now available to stream on Netflix and in select theaters.
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