The story of a group of Britons in the countryside in the first half of the 20th century, who most of the time either digging in a field or sitting around drinking tea and discussing the impending fate of World War II, sounds as exciting as a trip to Dentist on paper, but absolutely captivating on film.
Granted, if you’re into the type of film “The Dig” is, which as a historic play in rural England is not for everyone. Directed by Simon Stone and streamed on Netflix, the film is based on John Preston’s novel of the same name, but is factual – that fact is an archaeological find for the ages.
For decades, films have been a tool to convey the same message to as many people as possible, both with newsreels and propaganda images as well as to educate and inform through entertainment. Every time a movie announces “based on the untold true story,” I get a little excited to know that thousands, if not millions, of people are going to learn something that many didn’t know or care about recall.
Despite its familiar story beats, clichéd character moments, and award-winning bait style, The Dig has enough intriguing story and subtle yet powerful performances to make it a worthwhile watch, especially as a Netflix movie you watch on the couch can see at home.
The wealthy widow Edith Pretty (portrayed by Carey Mulligan) played self-taught archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) in 1939 to tackle the great burial mounds on her estate in Sutton Hoo.
Brown and his assistants start small and with little help from other archaeologists, and discover an Anglo-Saxon burial site several hundred years older than originally expected. News of the discovery soon spread and an archaeologist from Cambridge declares the site of National Importance and undertakes the excavation on behalf of the Office of Works.
As the war with Germany draws nearer, a large team is called in when a wrong ship is discovered, when Peggy Piggott (Lily James) discovers the first clearly Anglo-Saxon artifact. But while the government tries to roll out the results for the crown, Pretty and Brown need to stay strong and not let control of the location get out of hand.
Since this is likely a true story that few remember or have never heard of, the film wastes no time jumping right into it. The first shots show Brown riding his bike up the driveway and up the hills to the house where he meets Pretty and immediately you go out and look at the hills. It was refreshing to see how a movie like this didn’t get around the bush and got straight to the meat.
Much of the film is shot with a handheld camera, which often creates a documentary or independent film feel that fits right into the notion that no one really knew about it or cared about it, so it looks and feels like it doesn’t have a big one Studio support. Fortunately, the shots are all beautiful and show the English countryside as well as every British play drama.
As a short sidebar, less than 10 minutes after the running time, I said to myself, “This is kind of a half Terrance Malick film and half a James Ivory film,” and then after about 45 minutes, actor Ben Chaplin shows up and Chaplin appeared in Malicks “The Thin Red Line” and Ivory’s “The Remains of the Day” which really cemented my initial feelings about it.
Unfortunately, unlike the films by these directors, “The Dig” looks artificial, even if it’s beautiful. The costumes and sets and everything look fine, but they don’t feel as real as this story probably deserves. Thankfully, digging the tomb made the characters and their evolutions the flesh of the story.
As is usually the case, there are themes of class and sex struggle as the rich men of London believe they know them better than the women and lower class workers who do the work. Thoughtful and at times melancholy, digging up a millennia-old cemetery to learn about the past is a bittersweet irony as World War II looms on the horizon. But with a wonderful cast of actors and a really interesting story, this is a fun history lesson well worth taking.