Producers: Gabrielle Tana, Ellie Wood, Murray Ferguson and Carolyn Marks Blackwood Director: Simon Stone Screenplay: Moira Buffini Cast: Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James, Johnny Flynn, Ben Chaplin, Ken Stott, Archie Barnes, Monica Dolan, Eamon Farren, Paul Ready, Peter McDonald and Arsher Ali Distributor: Netflix
Anyone even vaguely interested early English history will be acquainted with the Sutton Hoo burial ship, which, in terms of what it tells us of the Anglo-Saxon period, is comparable to what Mycenae revealed about the “Homeric” era of prehistoric Greece. The 1938-39 discovery of the ancient grave in Suffolk, with its cache of golden treasure, served as the basis for John Preston’s 2007 book, which is here adapted by Moira Buffini and Simon Stone.
It should be noted, however, that Preston’s book was a novel, and while it included actual figures as the basis for its plot, it did not claim to be a history, and felt free to toy with chronology, alter, even invent characters and imagine relationships among them for dramatic effect. The film follows that pattern.
Still, if one doesn’t demand full factual accuracy, “The Dig” represents an emotionally affecting, and beautifully made, account of one of the last century’s most significant archaeological events.
It also serves to confirm the central role that Basil Brown, the excavator whose contribution was long underestimated in professional circles, played in the project.
Played by Ralph Fiennes as a quietly authoritative, modest man dismissed by experts as an amateur, Brown is hired by widow Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan, so prim and proper that it’s difficult to recognize her as the same actress starring in “Promising Young Woman”) to investigate the burial mounds that dot her estate. He agrees to do so, abandoning his post as part of a team unearthing a Roman villa for the Ipswich Museum in the process. It’s his work on the largest of the mounds that reveals the ship and incites the notion that a treasure horde might be found within it.
That leads to the takeover of the project by the authorities; a team led by Charles Phillips (a properly officious Ken Stott) of the British Museum and including craven underling Stuart Piggott (fluttery Ben Chaplin) and his mousy wife Peggy (Lily James, her beauty deliberately obscured), descends on the dig, shunting Brown and his local helpers to the side until Edith intervenes. She insists that he share in the triumph, though until recently his contribution was downplayed in the documentation.
The general process of the excavation is nicely recreated, though two years’ work is telescoped into one in order to emphasize the threat the possible outbreak of war posed to the completion of the dig. And while the suggestion of potential romance between Edith and Basil is certainly is questionable, the understated performances by Fiennes and Mulligan are so refined that it doesn’t much matter. (The introduction of Brown’s supportive wife May, played by Monica Dolan, is also helpful.) And though one could complain that Pretty’s heart trouble is unduly emphasized for melodramatic effect, doing so adds depth to the performance of Archie Barnes as her rambunctious young son Robert, toward whom Brown develops a charmingly avuncular air.
Perhaps the most intrusive element of the plot is an entirely fictional one—a budding romance between Peggy, an actual person who was Preston’s aunt and one of his sources, and Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn), a strapping young cousin of Pretty’s whom she calls upon to help Basil with his work. (Peggy, you see, is depicted as a young woman frustrated by her husband’s dismissive attitude.) Lomax is an invented character whose presence not only allows for that clumsy subplot but also invites heavy-handed references to the war. (Not only is Rory a likely candidate to be called up for service, but there’s even a presentiment of action when he tries to recue an RAF recruit who crashes into a lake near the dig.)
That sort of padding is unfortunate, even though James and Flynn make an attractive couple and their performances are good enough.
“The Dig” is certainly lovely to look at, with Maria Djurkovic’s production design and Alice Babidge’s costumes standing out in the lovely Suffolk locations captured by Mike Eley’s lush widescreen cinematography. Stone’s direction favors a stately tempo and a genteel feel, accentuated by Jon Harris’ editing and Stefan Gregory’s score.
Some will find the “Masterpiece Theatre” approach of the film a mite stolid, and others might consider the romantic subplots a distraction from the archaeological crux of the plot. But of course the material had to be given a personal underpinning for audiences to connect with—it’s not a History Channel documentary, after all; and though one might argue over the manner in which Preston, and Buffini after him, have chosen to do that, it’s understandable. In the end “The Dig” is a mite stolid in terms of its human drama, but the historical background is fascinating enough to compensate, and it showcases two nuanced lead performances.