Review by C.J. Bunce
What appeared from its movie trailer to be a dramatic account of a real-life British archaeological discovery from the early 1940s is actually so much more. Based on a novel by John Preston, The Dig finds Carey Mulligan (Doctor Who, Promising Young Woman) as Edith Pretty, a widow whose estate she initially purchased to one day excavate the giant mounds that sat upon it–to pursue her and her husband’s interest in archaeology. These mounds were once thought to possibly hold artifacts or remains from as far back as the Roman imperial era. She enlists the help of an excavator approaching the end of his career, Basil Brown, played by Ralph Fiennes (Skyfall, Schindler’s List, The English Patient, Harry Potter). What they unearth becomes the greatest discovery from British antiquity, but this isn’t a rousing adventure like Raiders of the Lost Ark. While it shows the slow process and procedure behind an actual dig, the film explores life at the precipice of change, missed and almost missed opportunities, the fleeting nature of life, and the survival of humanity through what we leave behind. It’s a powerful film that merits consideration for Best Picture when the Oscars are announced next month, and possibly other nods (the 2020 Oscars contenders include films released through February 28, 2021). It’s easily the best dramatic film in the past 14 months.
Set in the months before England entered World War II, the dig on the Sutton Hoo estate uncovers artifacts that date further back than historians had expected, and the work proceeds as Royal Air Force planes run their training missions overhead. As word of the discovery filters out, members of the local Ipswitch museum, and later the British Museum, wedge their way into the discovery. This includes Ken Stott (The Hobbit, The Missing, Charlie Wilson’s War) as a professional archaeologist, and Lily James (Rebecca, Baby Driver, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) who works at the dig along with her new husband.
But the relationships aren’t as important as the timing of it all. James’ character, Peggy Piggott, falls for Mrs. Pretty’s cousin, soon to be called to war, as her husband falls for another man onsite. Mulligan’s Mrs. Pretty is dying from a heart condition resulting from rheumatic fever in her youth just as the discovery has the potential to make big news. Fiennes’ Mr. Brown is finally having the success of his career just as forces from afar arrive to take it all away. England itself should be celebrating a past that was far more advanced than ever known, but it can’t because war is now the priority. The timing of the discovery is good for no one, and this reflects the reality of what happened to the artifacts and their discoverers in the years during and after the war.
Ralph Fiennes has been nominated for Best Actor Oscars for two roles in which he deserved the award, but didn’t get it: for The English Patient and Schindler’s List. His performance in The Dig is even better, the best work of his career. His character is singularly devoted to his craft, the craft of his father and his father’s father, and Fiennes perfectly conjures this fellow from off the beaten path. Carey Mulligan is in the biggest year of her career, no doubt getting an Oscar nod this year for her role in Promising Young Woman, which will likely shadow her strong performance here. Both Mulligan and Fiennes carry out the best dramatic performances of the past year in The Dig, and the film itself is powerful similar to two other towering achievements in British cinema, Remains of the Day and The English Patient. All of these dig in deeper to the secrets–and truths–of the human condition.
Director Simon Stone gets the thrill of the discovery scenes just right, and he filmed some of the scenes in the area around the actual discovery site. Although Sutton Hoo (named in Old English for the shape of the settlement) was an actual major discovery–the greatest in British history–Stone opts to underplay the Beowulf-era, Bronze Age artifacts and their significance, not revealing the spectacular, gold objects themselves, focusing instead on the surrounding people involved in bringing them to our attention. In real life James’ character Peggy Piggott would go on to have probably the most impactful career of all the characters, becoming one of England’s premiere experts in prehistory over a 60 year archaeology career, certainly meriting her own film story.
A sweeping, moving, cinematic achievement, The Dig is not to be missed. Watch it now, streaming exclusively on Netflix.