Synopsis – An archaeologist embarks on the historically important excavation of Sutton Hoo in 1939.
My Take – A British drama starring Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan, well sign me up!
Honestly, when I read the outline of this film, I realized that I had no idea about the Sutton Hoo treasure, nor did I possess any particularly knowledge about the historical impact of its discovery prior to the beginning of World War II. I actually expected to sit through a couple of tedious hours, after all, an archaeological dig is rather time-consuming, and not the sort of thing that’s noted for drama. But who knew that 112 minutes of watching soil being moved around could produce one of the most riveting dramas of recent years?
Here, director Simon Stone and screenwriter Moira Buffini, adapting from John Preston’s novel, tell a slow-burning story with understated and genuine drama throughout, turning what could have been a rather dry tale of archaeology into a genuinely gripping character drama.
Sure, its historical context takes a little while to become fully relevant, but ultimately, the film really proves itself as a captivating watch. In truth, the dig of the film title plays as almost a backdrop to a far more fascinating character-driven drama that uses emotional intrigue to bring you closer to the story at hand and allow you to appreciate its importance.
In the end, turning this latest Netflix release into a hugely enjoyable, life-affirming film, especially considering that it’s based on real-life events.
Set in 1939, against the background of a war threatened Britain, the story follows Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), a widow who lives on a large estate in Suffolk with her young son, Robert Pretty (Archie Barnes), and a few employees. Assured of the fact that there could be a serious archaeological find on her land, and she hires Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), a self-taught humble excavator to investigate earth mounds on her property. Despite his earlier apprehension, soon after beginning, Brown discovers a quite literal treasure trove of Anglo-Saxon gold in a boat that was hauled over land and used as a grave.
While Ms. Pretty adds more people to the site, including her cousin, Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn), the discovery also garners the attention of Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) from the British museum, who not only takes charges of the project, but also adds his own assistants like Stuart Piggott (Ben Chaplin) and his wife Peggy Piggott (Lily James), to take part in a dig, which will not only change their lives, but also turn out to be one of the most significant discoveries in British archaeological history.
For a while, it seems to be all the film is going to be about, the effort to rob Brown of credit for his discovery, however it expands when it gets 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 center stage.
Complete with elegant camerawork, a beautiful score and impressively atmospheric direction that makes it an eye-catching watch from the first few moments, the film has enough depth to keep you engrossed even if its story isn’t advancing apace, something that’s a lot harder to pull off than you may think.
One of the main things that I really liked about the film was its patience. Never dragging yet never rushing, it takes its time to build up all of its main strengths, from its characters, their emotional back stories, and the overarching historical context of the outbreak of World War II.
Yes, the film, much like archaeology itself, is subtle and while there’s a lot happening underneath the surface, few things are explicitly or overtly spelled out. However, there is a certain confidence behind director Simon Stone‘s execution, as he introduces major characters halfway through, and it sometimes diverges from the main story to concentrate on the feelings of secondary characters. He strongly compel us to feel invested in the characters and situations scattered neatly among the film’s handful of subplots, all of which convene under a single idea, our place in the history of the world.
Indeed, there are plenty of moments when it’s clear that he is doing everything he can to bring potentially stuffy material to life, shooting handheld and playing with sound to give certain scenes the feeling of a dream or a memory. Yet all of it works, as the film comes together beautifully, it may be a modest film, but it’s one that carries surprising power.
Yes, one element where the film does seem to falter is in its use of the historical backdrop of the lead-up to World War II. Set in the summer months of 1939 before the outbreak of war, there are sporadic references to the coming conflict through the first two acts of the film, but they don’t seem to bear much relevance to this story about an archaeological find. But, other than that, it’s simply impossible to find a fault with this charming, intelligent tale of time, loss and yearning.
Also at the heart of the film are a couple of terrific performances. Ralph Fiennes continues to make a mark on his long filmography with yet another character which sees him in a well-rounded assured role to which he completely commits. Carey Mulligan too brings in another stunning turn. Much of her performance is iceberg-like; she lets you see just enough to know there is more there. But every so often, she lets down her guard to smile, and we’re reminded that Mulligan has one of the most intoxicating smiles in the films.
While she’s only in the second half of the story, Lily James is a complete scene-stealer as an aspiring archaeologist and frustrated new wife, desperate for both respect and romance. In other roles, Ben Chaplin, Johnny Flynn, Ken Stott, Archie Barnes and Monica Dolan also manage to leave a strong mark. On the whole, ‘The Dig’ is an understated intriguing little British drama further uplifted by calm yet fully convincing performances.
Directed – Simon Stone
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 112 minutes