The Dig (2021)
Director: Simon Stone
Writer: Moira Buffini, based on a novel by John Preston
With its dramatic cinematography, starry cast, and subtle art direction, The Dig is so smooth and elegant that it sometimes feels lightweight, despite its heavy themes. Set in 1939 in the English countryside, it tells the story of a remarkable archeological discovery on private land. It’s also a portrait of a grieving widow and a country on the verge of war. While this isn’t the most suspenseful movie you’ll ever see, its themes deepen as the story unfolds. In the final act, there was some Malick-like camerawork that had me thinking about the sweep of time and the desperate sadness of war, but in general, I was reminded of high-production television shows like The Crown. The truth is, I watched this over two nights, stopping it halfway through, as if it were a television show, and while I try to avoid doing that, I thought that viewing method suited this movie just fine, and maybe even enhanced it.
Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes star as Edith Pretty, a wealthy landowner, and Basil Brown, an amateur archeologist. Edith—or Mrs. Pretty, as she is referred to by everyone, including her extensive household staff—is a widow whose land, Sutton Hoo, is home to a mysterious mound, which she suspects is a Viking burial ground. She hires Basil, a local with experience in excavations, to dig into mound. Basil makes a significant discovery early in the movie, which surprised me. I assumed the movie’s plot would involve an extended, fruitless search. Instead, the story looks very closely at the logistics of the dig, and the relationships that form as a result of it, a choice that I found much more interesting. When professionals are brought in to manage the site, there is a clash between their methods and Basil’s, which Mrs. Pretty must mediate. At the same time, Mrs. Pretty is dealing with some serious health problems, and trying to hide them from her school-aged son, Robert (Archie Barnes), who is clearly not fooled—he’s already lost one parent, so he’s on high alert.
As more characters are introduced and side plots emerge—including a romance that I totally fell for—the importance of the dig gets a little bit lost, even as the discovery is revealed to be significant. I didn’t mind the digressions, mainly because director Simon Stone managed the various story lines so well, using overlapping dialogue to show what was happening in different households at the same time, and because the characters—and the actors who portrayed them—had enough depth to carry short scenes. It goes without saying that Carey Mulligan is believable as an upper class lady with a lot on her mind. Ralph Fiennes is also convincing as Basil, a villager with deep roots in the community and a lot of fieldwork experience, if not in the university. I think of Fiennes as a sharp and often sharply funny actor, but his face and voice seemed to soften in this role, and he had a mild, gentle manner that is slightly melancholic. Robert is immediately drawn to him, and you can feel Mrs. Pretty’s relief that her son has found a reliable father figure.
The characterization of Robert is one best things about The Dig, and as I reflect on the many stories it tells, I wonder if Robert is actually the axis of the film, because you can see how this excavation, which brings so many new people into his life, will shape his character and sense of the world in years to come. There’s also a poignancy to his presence, because he’s a stand-in for all the children who are going to be orphaned by the war. This is a movie weighted by death and grief, but it also invites the viewer to take a longer perspective, and think about how we’re connected to the humans who came thousands of years before us.