I dug THE DIG (2021).
Yes, THE DIG, a new Netflix movie, is a wonderful film. It tells the surprisingly moving story of the excavation in 1939 in Sutton Hoo, England, which unearthed a burial ship from Anglo Saxon times. It features two fabulous performances by Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan, beautiful direction by Simon Stone, and an above average screenplay by Moira Buffini, based on the novel The Dig by John Preston, both of which are based on a true story.
It’s 1939, and England is on the brink of war with Nazi Germany. Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) hires amateur excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to dig on her property as rumors have swirled that historic burial grounds lay underneath, and as Edith says, she just has a “feeling” about what is there. Brown is only an “amateur” because he’s not formally educated or trained in the field, but he’s been excavating since he was a child, and so his instincts and true experience are unparalleled, and Edith recognizes this. He has the reputation of being difficult to work with, but this comes more from idiosyncrasies rather than from stubborness.
Edith herself is unwell, as she is slowly dying, and she worries for her young son Robert (Archie Barnes), as the boy’s father has already passed away. Robert is an imaginative young boy who believes the ancient explorers were a lot like the space explorers he reads about in science fiction magazines, and he takes a liking to Basil Brown and is only too happy to be allowed to help the excavator with the dig.
Eventually, Basil unearths an amazing find, the remains of an Anglo Saxon ship, which would have been painstakingly moved from the sea to the land to provide a burial for someone of extreme importance. It’s a magnificent find, one that brings the British Museum to Edith’s doorstep, with orders that from here on out, they are taking charge.
Director Simon Stone has made a thoroughly satisfying period piece. The photography of the English countryside is as elegant as it is pastoral. You can almost smell the greenery. The film also nails the look of the period, 1939 England on the brink of war.
The first half of the movie is almost magical, bordering on fantasy, even as the story is rooted in reality. There’s a mystical quality to the screenplay as Basil Brown expounds on the marvels of the past, which he says speaks to them. There is a reverence here that resonates throughout the movie. Young Robert is an eager listener to Brown’s ideas, and we the audience are right there with the boy. It’s storytelling at its best.
The second half of the movie pivots somewhat, as the British Museum becomes involved, and we are introduced to more characters, including Peggy Piggot (Lily James) who’s there to help her husband with the dig, but it is through this experience that she learns some truths about herself and her marriage. The second half of the movie isn’t quite as effective as the first, but it’s still a first-rate screenplay by Moira Buffini.
The two leads here are outstanding.
Ralph Fiennes, who has delivered many fine perfomances over the years going all the way back to THE ENGLISH PATIENT (1996), and who is currently playing M in the new James Bond movies, is outstanding here as Basil Brown. It’s clearly one of his best film performances, and instantly one of my favorites. He makes Brown a three-dimensional character who in spite of his reptutation for being difficult is sincere, empathetic, and a genuinely caring person.
Carey Mulligan is equally as good as Edith Pretty. It’s a challenging role, as Edith grows sicker throughout the story, and Mulligan is up to the challenge of capturing her ever increasing sickness. In spite of her illness, she is a strong-willed woman who does her best to give Basil credit for the dig, even though the museum would prefer the name of an amateur not be mentioned at all.
I have been enjoying Mulligan’s work for some time now, as she has made memorable impressions in such films as DRIVE (2011), THE GREAT GATSBY (2013), and MUDBOUND (2017). She is also currently starring in the thriller PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (2020).
The other testament to Mulligan’s and Fiennes’ acting is the two actors share tremendous chemistry… their scenes together resonate and drive this film forward… even though they are not connected romantically, which is usually the way it is onscreen for characters who share this kind of chemistry. They are both fantastic.
Young Archie Barnes is noteworthy as Edith’s son Robert, as his energetic performance really captures the spirit of the movie.
Lily James is also very good as Peggy, although she doesn’t show up in the film until its second half, but she makes Peggy a sympathetic character, even if she’s not integral to the film’s main plot. I like James a lot and have enjoyed her work in such films as BABY DRIVER (2017), DARKEST HOUR (2017), and REBECCA (2020).
One of the themes in THE DIG, in addition to the connection between explorers of the past and explorers of the future, is that life is fleeting, and you have to go for things in the here and now. However, we all fail at times, and we have to live with our failures and move on, and when ultimately our time is done, we do live on as what we do now for others lives on with them, which allows the past to continue to speak to the present and the future.
There’s a lot going on in THE DIG, as it has a very layered screenplay by Moira Buffini.
And one of the film’s best scenes, which speaks to its theme of the meeting of explorers, Robert takes his ailing mother on a “voyage” on a ship through time. They camp out in the remains of the unearthed ship under the starry night sky and Robert speaks of his explorations through time and space and how his mother will be there with him because time is different in space, and from where she is she will know all that he has done.
Deep, almost magical storytelling, and yet there’s not a drop of fantasy to be found. Instead, it’s wrapped in a story that is as deeply rooted in reality as you can get.
THE DIG is an exceptional movie that unearths more than just an amazing archeological find. It digs up some astounding truths about who we are, what we are doing here, and where we are going.