Adapted by screenwriter Moira Buffini from a historical novel by John Preston of the same name, Simon Stone’s The Dig tells the tale of the Sutton Hoo excavation in Suffolk, England, the site of ancient burial mounds filled with hidden treasures of the past. The film opens on Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), a self-taught archeologist of modest pedigree who has been invited by wealthy widow Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) to begin excavating the small human-made hills which dot the landscape of her estate. Though Basil is initially hesitant, there’s a kind of unspoken camaraderie between himself and Edith; they are kindred spirits who both value archeology as a way of holding on to the past. He takes the job, and unearths wonders.
The relational dynamic between Basil, Edith and her son, Robert (Archie Barnes), is the most compelling and enriching aspect of The Dig, a melancholy meditation on loss and one’s place in the cosmos. With World War II looming on the horizon, the future before them looks decidedly bleak, prompting them to live in a quasi-fantasy world of both the ancient past and the far-off future. Whether showing the boy the stars through his telescope or digging down into the depths of the earth, Basil quickly becomes a surrogate father to Robert, and a friendly companion to Edith. As Basil and his wife, May (Monica Brown), are working-class Suffolk folks while Edith is a young but sickly single mother of some wealth and prestige, the friendship is a perfectly peculiar and delightful. Edith is dying from a heart condition, which gives every moment a sense of urgency and sadness, imbuing the entire film with a sense of pathos.
However, where this story could have mined the depths of these few characters, a bizarre mid-way narrative divergence makes The Dig end up feeling muddled. A group of archeologists from Cambridge arrive, creating tension for Basil, and interrupting the quietly wonderful dynamic of both the dig and the film. There is a superfluous romantic subplot involving real-life archeologists Stuart and Peggy Piggot (Ben Chaplin and Lily James, respectively). Stuart has romantic trysts with fellow digger John Brailsford (Eamon Farren, who portrayed the evil Richard Horne in Twin Peaks: The Return), while Peggy falls in love with Edith’s cousin, Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn). When these characters appear, the Basil/Edith dynamic which was so central to the film suddenly becomes an afterthought, even though little is added by these new romances (all of which seem to be historically dubious—Stuart and Peggy were actual people, and their marriage did end in the 1950s, but adding the gay subplot to the Sutton Hoo excavation if Stuart wasn’t gay is simply dishonest). It’s as if the filmmakers couldn’t trust the audience with the simplicity of a story about an archeological dig, so they tried to spice it up, not realizing that what they originally had was great all along.
What elevates The Dig beyond its scattered narrative misgivings are the understated, affecting performances from Fiennes and Mulligan, as well as the lush cinematography of Mike Eley. The foggy green-and-grey English landscape looks like something out of a dream, and there is a slight sepia-tone quality to the coloring which makes it feel like we’ve travelled in time back to 1938. As cousin Rory walks around the dig site taking photographs, we are reminded that cinema itself is a kind of archeological technology, capturing the past so we can revisit it in the present.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3661210/