The Dig is a delightful historical drama based on the true story of the 1939 excavation of an Anglo-Saxon ship. With excellent performances, The Dig weaves a beautiful story about how our histories can inform our present and future. Ralph Fiennes is as pleasant to watch as ever in The Dig, as Basil Brown, an excavator from the Ipswich Museum. He’s helping a woman named Mrs. Pretty (Carey Mulligan) excavate the mysterious mounds on her land, unsure what they will find. Buried treasure from vikings, perhaps?
Mrs. Pretty’s property is on an idyllic bit of English countryside in Sutton Hoo. If you’ve heard of Sutton Hoo before (or googled it), you may not be surprised by what is to be uncovered. However, if you’re unfamiliar with the English archaeological finds, there’s a bit of fun in the mystery of Mr. Brown’s and Mrs. Pretty’s search. Regardless, it’s still fun to watch the action progress in The Dig.
From early on in The Dig, we see that this excavation will not be a simple undertaking. There is quite a bit of land to excavate; too much for Mr. Brown to do on his own, so Mrs. Pretty enlists some help. Before the film hits the 30 minute mark, Mr. Brown, while talking to Mrs. Pretty about what they’re expecting to find, becomes trapped under dirt. This moment lends a bit of suspense to the scenes that are to come, as the dig gets underway. While The Dig is generally not a suspenseful film, these early scenes of discovery are exciting to watch.
Naturally, once word gets out about Mr. Brown’s incredible find, an archaeologist from the British Museum, Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) shows up to take over the dig. While at first Mr. Brown is terribly offended by this, he eventually returns to work on the dig that he discovered, along with employees of the British Museum. Basil Brown wants not only the credit for the dig, but also to be in charge. Despite the blow to his ego dealt by the British Museum, he’s motivated to continue with his work by his bond with both Mrs. Pretty and her son Robert.
Carey Mulligan delivers an excellent performance as Mrs. Edith pretty, a widow raising her son on her own. She’s fallen ill, and in dealing with her own mortality and questions of the afterlife, The Dig provides us with a story of the legacies we leave behind. Carey Mulligan deserves all the praise she will be getting about her versatility between this performance and Promising Young Woman.
While the bonds Basil Brown forms with the Pretty family are a crucial part of the narrative of The Dig, there are other relationships that don’t feel as important in the film, that are focused on anyway. Much time is spent with Peggy and Stuart Piggott (Lily James and Ben Chaplin); their emotionally disconnected marriage becomes a bit of a side-story to make room for a romance. The light romance of The Dig is not as interesting as the main storyline, though it may serve to appeal to a wider audience.
Anxieties about the war color the experiences of everyone in The Dig; Mrs. Pretty’s cousin, Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn) has to stop work on the dig when he’s called by the Royal Air Force. The drama of The Dig wraps up as Britain joins the war and we learn what happens to the treasures found by Basil Brown. While the war itself is not the focus of this film, we’re called to clearly see how the threat of World War II hangs overhead. Issues of the war aside, The Dig is an extremely pleasant movie; sad moments are balanced out with heart-warming scenes. It feels cliched to call a British film charming, but that’s exactly what it is.
If there’s one thing we’ve come to know that we can expect from Netflix, it’s that the quality of period dramas on the streaming service will be top-notch. The Dig does not let down in this regard; the costumes, sets, and soundtrack all perfectly set the atmosphere of England in 1939 (or so it’s easy to imagine). As such, there is a good bit of interpersonal drama and romance along with the narrative of the dig itself that will endear The Dig to all who enjoy period films.
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