Film Review – “The Dig”

The advent of online streaming services disrupted typical television viewing in a way unlikely to change anytime soon.  Netflix started this trend and eschewed any notion of resting on their laurels by creating original programming and allowing us to binge entire seasons of television in a matter of days (or hours).  However, that success in original programming rested with television shows and not necessarily movies.  I mean, can anyone deny that Will Smith’s Bright flopped on a level that should have seen Smith giving back his paycheck?  

So, when I saw a Netflix promo for The Dig, I was skeptical, and I added it to my list but that’s usually where movies go to die after I decide I can find something better.  This film did pique some interest as a World War II era period piece, it deals with archaeology, and its star Ralph Fiennes consistently delivers high grade performances.  

Let’s lay out one key fact before move forward:  The Dig is not Indiana Jones.  If you watch the film expecting Nazis and secret plots around every turn, disappointment will follow.  The Dig portrays archeology in a more realistic manner, and finds its roots in the real life story of the most important excavation on the British Isles.

** Warning:  mild spoilers follow ** 

Our film opens with wealthy widow Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) procuring the services of amateur archaeologist Basil Brown (Fiennes) to uncover any potential artifacts from a series of earthen mounds on her estate.  We see a strong dose of Brown’s character in the opening scene.  He is a man who knows his worth, as he refuses to work for less than 2 pounds per week though he lacks any real credentials.  We learn that his formal education ended at the age of 12 but he learned his craft from his father from a young age.  His dignity and a desire for professional recognition become even more apparent as the film unfolds, yet he never attempts to portray himself as something he’s not.  He corrects a man who introduced him as an archaeologist by noting that he is an ‘excavator.’

Mulligan and Fiennes pair well together

Brown’s work, with the help of Pretty’s servants on the estate and her cousin Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn), quickly uncovers a surprise under one of the mounds.  They discover the remnants of a ship, which others suspect may be a Viking relic but Brown assesses it to be much older.  As news of the dig spreads, it attracts the attention of archaeologist Charles Phillips (Ken Stott), an expert who intends to scoop up credit for the dig and secure any treasure for the prestigious British Museum in London.

Phillips brings in his own team to continue the dig, including husband and wife duo Stuart Piggott (Ben Chaplin) and Peggy Piggott (Lily James).  The couple presents as a typical marriage of convenience from the time, as the significantly older Stuart seems interested in everything but his stunning wife.  Peggy, for her part, wants to establish herself as an archaeologist in her own right, and appears saddened when she learns her place on the team has more to do with the fact that she’s slight in size (and less likely to damage artifacts) rather than her historical acumen or skills.

Initially, we see Peggy as a minor character, but by the end of the film, she appears to have outgrown everyone else in importance other than Brown or Pretty.

Lily James as archaeologist Peggy Piggott

At the insistence of Pretty, the team of experts keeps Brown on the dig.  There is no obvious reason as to why Pretty does so, but the tone of the film suggests a mutual respect between her and Brown despite significant differences in upbringing and lifestyle.  The writers of the film avoid a disaster here by cultivating a bond between the two, but something that does not rise to the level of romance.  

When the team discovers the ship, they discover a chamber undisturbed by grave robbers.  The subsequent artifacts drawn from the chamber astonish the team and foment a bit of conflict.

So what’s the film all about?

Good cinema, at its core, is an art form.  Artists always want to convey a message or theme of some kind and for The Dig, we arrive at an interesting premise.  The characters and the story all seem to be at the precipice of a defining moment in their existence.  The time for any further delays in their life has passed.

Basil Brown desperately wants recognition that he knows he deserves, and not to be condescended to by the likes of Phillips.  At one point, Brown’s wife almost chides him in remarking not to let ‘them’ take this from him.  A few scenes also point to missed opportunities in life for Brown, including the lack of children for he and his wife, and his lack of formal education.  Brown also appears to be a man somewhat consumed with his work, as he forgets to respond to his wife’s daily letters whilst he is away at the dig site.

Edith Pretty cannot evade her terminal health problems and the unfairness of life, as she already lost a husband and now must cope with her own mortality.  She must also wrestle with who will care for her son after she dies and consider the even scarier question of what comes after this life.  Pretty also bears the responsibility of determining what will be done with the important artifacts discovered on her property.  Will she keep them?  Donate them?  To which museum?  There are competing interests here.

In most of her scenes, Peggy Piggott is teetering on the edge of an affair with the younger, more exciting Rory Lomax.  What’s a girl going to do?  Moreover, how does she establish herself in a professional capacity in a field dominated by men?

Lomax is an intriguing figure in the film, too.  He qualified for the Royal Air Force and the cloud of war concerns his ailing cousin, Edith.  It’s also worth noting that Edith’s late husband served in the military in some capacity, but he’s only referenced as “the colonel.”  Lomax feels a sense of pressure himself as his cousin pleads with him to avoid any real danger, as the responsibility to take care of her son will fall to him.

The smarmy Charles Phillips has a limited window to finish the dig before war breaks out in Europe, and capitalize on the find of a lifetime to maintain reputation for himself and the British Museum.

Each one of these characters faces important decisions with permanent consequences.  How do any of us respond when put to the test and have a limited time frame to act?  Particularly when our decisions also defy society’s standards.

The Sutton Hoo treasure find in Suffolk remains one of the biggest in British history

We also have to contend with the impending crisis of World War II, hinted at on numerous occasions, but none so palpable as the repetitious flights of British fighter planes in a number of scenes at the dig site.  The Dig also intersperses scenes where we hear radio broadcasts about German aggression in Europe.  Britain, and perhaps the world, arrive at their own defining moment.  How will they respond in that moment of crisis?

Is it worth watching?  

The Dig frames its theme into smaller little motifs:  death, identity, work, time, relationships, the past, the future, and of course, living in the moment.  These traits largely define humanity,  and they make The Dig worth watching.  

The acting is rock solid.  Although Ralph Fiennes is the only actor Americans might recognize, the rest of the cast is no stranger to film or television and outside of America, the Brits are best with entertainment.  The sets, costumes, and such accurately date to the time period and the technical aspects of film making make you settle into the story nicely.  The story unfolds in a way that avoids many of the usual tropes which have been overused for decades.  I kept waiting for some trite plot device but it never arrived.

The film uses little profanity, mild sexuality, and no violence.  The theme of mortality does figure into the film, and one scene shows the death of an RAF pilot after a crash.  The Dig has a PG-13 rating and that’s more than appropriate.  I’m not sure young children would even be interested, but you would be the better judge of your children’s tastes.

Are there any problems with the film?  

Depends on your style of film. The pace is slow at some points, and this is not an action film.  I would describe it as more introspective.  Personally, I like that but I also understand it’s not everyone’s taste.  The aspect of archaeology in this story is more incidental, and not so much a key to the plot, but it does demonstrate the profession for what it is — a lot of painstaking and tedious work in the hopes of one amazing moment of discovery and glory.  

Also, some very detailed oriented people will note some historical inaccuracies in the film.  If that’s you, then you’re a movie snob.  One quirk worth mentioning is the casting of Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty.  The real life Edith was in her mid-50s when the events in the film transpired and Mulligan is a much younger 30-something.  Sure, a more age appropriate actress would have made more sense, but the Mulligan handled the role well.  The film originally cast Nicole Kidman for the part, but after she backed out, Mulligan landed the job.  It probably worked out for the best, as it allows the movie to be more about the story and less about the star power of the actors.  

There are a few characters and sub-plots which were fictionalized but nothing out of the ordinary.  The movie does not betray the history as much as it adds a few characters for some additional conflict.  If you’re interested in learning more about the Sutton Hoo treasure and the archaeological find from Suffolk, check out the online display from the British Museum.

Overall rating:  3 out of 4 stars 

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