DIRECTED BY: Simon Stone
STARRING: Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Johnny Flynn, Lily James, Ben Chaplin, Ken Stott, Archie Barnes, Monica Dolan, Danny Webb, Robert Wilfort, James Dryden, Joe Hurst, Paul Ready, Eamon Farren, Peter McDonald and Ellie Piercy
As WWII looms, a wealthy widow hires an amateur archaeologist to excavate the burial mounds on her estate. When they make a historic discovery, the echoes of Britain’s past resonate in the face of its uncertain future.
The Dig is a film adaptation of John Preston’s 2007 novel of the same name, adapted for the big screen by Moira Buffini and directed by Simon Stone. Set during the eve of World War II, a wealthy widow named Edith Pretty owns a large estate near Woodridge, Suffolk and hires a local, self-taught excavator named Basil Brown to find out what’s underneath the mysterious mounds that lie on her land. As Basil uncover’s a ship buried under one of the mounds, conflict arises as the British Museum not only look to takeover the excavation of the site, but also claim ownership of the discovery.
The film is based on the true story of the 1939 excavation at Sutton Hoo, where archaeologists discovered a undisturbed ship burial in one of the mounds on the estate, dating back to the 6th or 7th century when they discovered a wealth of Anglo-Saxon artefacts. On paper, the film sounded like it would’ve worked better as a documentary rather than a dramatic adaptation, but I couldn’t help but be enthralled by Simon Stone’s film. Believing that one particular mound may have historic significance underneath it, Edith Pretty looks to hire an untrained excavator known as Basil Brown to dig it up as Basil is all she can afford. Untrained is a harsh terminology to use for Basil Brown, who is self-taught after growing up working alongside his father and later with the Ipswich Museum, who advised Edith to hire him. Set against the backdrop of Britain awaiting for word of getting involved in a war with Germany as they invade Poland, Basil Brown digs up the mounds and begins to develop a friendship with Edith and her son Robert. For the majority of the first-half of the film, we’re primarily focused on Edith and Basil, with the former not only having to overcome her grief and is glad to be reprieved from her loneliness for a moment, to having a condition that frequently pesters her during the course of the film, and the latter we learn about his past, his upbringing and later when his wife arrives how she tells him to fight for recognition of his work as the museums (Ipswich and British) enter to further excavate the ship burial and claim ownership for themselves.
It’s from here that Basil Brown kind of takes a backseat in the second half of the film, which feels kind of the point, as other characters enter the fray, from Edith’s cousin Rory Lomax, to Charles Phillips from the British Museum and his assistants John Brailsford, Stuart Piggott and his wife Peggy, and we get to follow Edith more as when she watches from afar and her health also seems to deteriorate. While the second of the film picks up momentum, the film is incredibly well paced thanks to Simon Stone’s direction and how cinematographer Mike Eley captures the characters in the landscape surrounding them and the mounds. The score composed by Stefan Gregory also hits the right ones, particularly in the quieter scenes and just soothes the soul. While the films main focus is on archaeology, it’s the characters that make you stay over the course of the films one hour and fifty-two minute runtime and that’s down to the talented ensemble. Ralph Fiennes gives a great performance as Basil Brown, a man who has confidence in what he is doing, despite not having the ‘official’ or ‘certified’ label that some are looking for (i.e. Charles Phillips), and Carey Mulligan also gives a really good performance as Edith Pretty, who brings real heart to the film of wondering what might’ve been with her interest in archeology if a past incident didn’t take up her life and wonders what will become of her son Robert in the future. Also giving really good performances in the supporting roles are Johnny Flynn as Edith’s cousin Rory who hopes of getting called up to serve for the RAF and also takes photographs of the excavation, Lily James as Stuart’s wife Peggy whose questioning her marriage as her husband seems to be, quite actively, avoiding her and begins to spark an attraction with Rory, and Monica Dolan as Basil’s wife May who provides the support for her husband when others ignore him. Admittedly the love triangle between Rory, Peggy and Stuart didn’t really interest me much and didn’t really care for that aspect but there is a few little twists in that angle and resolution that made it feel refreshing to see.
If you’re a fan of history and archaeology told in a compelling structure thanks to some quality performances from the cast, then The Dig will certainly be to your taste.
THE DIG IS AVAILABLE TO WATCH ON NETFLIX NOW.