Carey Mulligan’s Oscar campaign for Promising Young Woman really should include screeners for The Dig. She is electrifying in one film and nearly drab in the other. This might sound like insult, but it’s really an observation of her range. After witnessing her sprightly and sexy hand at black comedy as Cassie, one would hardly recognize Mulligan with her dowdy and subdued work as Edith Pretty. The Dig makes Mulligan’s work in Promising Young Woman all the more laudable while offering another notable performance. Similarly, Promising Young Woman accentuates the subtlety of her interpretation in The Dig. It’s always a treat to see actors transform themselves so strikingly.
The Dig admittedly has a hint of “old Carey Mulligan.” It sits comfortably within her body of period films that greatly outnumbers her contemporary stories. (And don’t get me wrong: Far from the Madding Crowd is one of my favourite Mulligan movies.) Like Keira Knightley or her Dig co-star Lily James, Mulligan just seems to fit best in the olden days.
But The Dig, after all, is a film about excavation. It slowly chips away at the surface, revealing new things along the way. Director Simon Stone (The Daughter) and writer Moira Buffini (Jane Eyre) reimagine the discovery of the Sutton Hoo burial site. This 1939 dig happens following the death of Edith’s husband as she considers the ghosts that roam the estate. She enlists Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), a pot-bellied excavator from the Ipswich Museum, to unearth what lies beneath two gigantic mounds on the grounds of Sutton Hoo. Brown is an old salt-of-the-earth character. One whiff of the land and he knows that Edith’s land holds a cemetery.
A Historic Find
As Basil tunnels under the surface, the chronically ill Edith gains some colour. The sunlight and activity do her good. In pre-war England, her life had little purpose. One can sense the restlessness in Mulligan’s performance as Edith anxiously awaits results from Basil. Striking something—gold, bones, relics—would bring some life back to the estate.
Basil’s find is, obviously, historic. The site turns out to be the resting place of a ship dating back to the sixth century. Basil discovers the fragile remains of the ship in the sand. Small warped rivets appear as he digs carefully in the surrounding area. Soon, he believes this ship to be a ceremonial burial site where all sorts of medieval relics could be housed.
As the discovery causes a stir, Basil’s efforts draw the interests of archaeologists from the British Museum in London. Led by the obnoxious Charles Phillips (Ken Stott), the national team overtakes the site, introducing a chorus of characters including archaeologists Stuart Piggott (Ben Chaplin) and his wife, Peggy (Lily James). They arrive shortly after Edith’s cousin, Rory (Johnny Flynn), lands on the estate to assist Basil and photograph the action.
The usual tussle between the establishment and individuals follows. England being England, there’s also an odious whiff of classism to Phillips’ perception of Basil’s work and his right to finish what he began. The advent of war, however, means that some members of the dig begin to see the arbitrariness of these class distinctions. On one hand, the archaeologists wonder if it seems frivolous to dig up sand as the world readies for war. On the other, the dig assumes a higher calling. There’s a sense of duty to preserve their shared history before it’s too late.
Lust in the Dust
The breakdown of class distinctions inevitably plays out via love stories. Edith and Basil assume a politely reserved flirtatiousness to their dealings. Any hint of romance is unspoken, but Basil doesn’t even open the daily letters he receives from his poor wife, while Edith is notably heartbroken if he can’t accept an invitation to dinner. The spark between them is more one of recognition: few others notice them for what they’re worth.
The real sparks fly between Peggy and Rory in a subplot that gobbles a bit too time from the dig. When Stuart exchanges one come-hither glance too many with a fellow male researcher, and shies away from his new wife’s affection, Peggy begins an excavation of her own. As she works closely with Rory, The Dig parallels the process of unearthing new discoveries. While uncovering relics of England’s Anglo-Saxon history, they’re also revealing aspects of themselves that have been hidden until the dig. With Sutton Hoo so close to a military base, and the war quickly approaching, the diggers are constantly reminded of the fragility of their own existence as they carefully extract golden artifacts from the ground.
The thrill of the dig admittedly becomes lost amid the many personal crises that intersect with the excavation. Based on John Preston’s novel, The Dig somewhat burdens itself with its literary origins. It synthesizes a great deal of history while reimagining it. A few too many subplots, meanwhile, distract from its correction of history. However, the point remains that The Dig exists because history wrote out characters like Edith Pretty and Basil Brown. One can forgive the adaptation for trying to accommodate all parties who helped unearth a historic find.
An Earthy Film
Shot in Suffolk not far from the original Sutton Hoo ground, The Dig finds serenity in the sites of history. Stone and cinematographer Mike Eley favour earth tones and natural light to complement the excavation. The film adopts a fine lyricism as the characters dabble in the larger philosophical and existential questions invited by both the find and the encroaching war. The Dig is unabashedly Malickian as it warmly harnesses the golden sunlight within myriad shots of flowing grass. It’s an outdoorsy, hands-on film experiences that taps at both the heart and the head.
Stone and editor John Harris further evoke the fleeting passage of time with another staple from the Terrence Malick playbook. The Dig adopts Malick’s device of bridging dialogue atop shots of the natural landscape or of characters in action pursuing their passions, like getting their hands either in the dirt or on each other. As with Malick, this particular style is very love-it-or-leave-it. But the pensive, contemplative pacing strikes wonders with the eerie sense of history embedded in the landscape when they get it right.
Similarly, Mulligan and Fiennes honour these overlooked historical figures without any vanity. They imbue their characters with tones as natural as the film’s palette. Warm and muted, they are clearly cut from this Earth.
The Dig streams on Netflix beginning January 29.