Cert – 12, Run-time – 1 hour 51 minutes, Director – Simon Stone
As World War II looms Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) employs archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to uncover potential treasures that may lie beneath the mounds on her Sutton Hoo estate.
Sometimes the simplest things in life can bring us the purest of joys. The Dig isn’t a film that revels in big budget CGI and is mostly void of action or threat, in fact for the first half the film is largely concerned with one thing. Ralph Fiennes digging into a giant mound. Fiennes plays Basil Brown, an archaeologist employed by Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) to uncover potential treasures that may lie beneath her. The initial search is calm and simplistic, a three man job with only one or two small items uncovered. Director Simon Stone’s slow-panning shots as he reveals the dig site and the various unearthed pieces of history, mixed with the wonderful cinematography of Mike Eley, bringing you into the peace of the events.
It’s this technique that allows for the discovery of a burial ship – which could date back as early as the Anglo-Saxon era – to truly have an impact on the viewer. This large scale finding also has an impact on a number of people interested in the project. Soon the British Museum (led by Ken Stott) takes charge of the titular dig, and a number of new figures are brought in – including married couple Stuart (Ben Chaplin) and Peggy Piggott (Lily James). As the site becomes busier so does the film, as more elements of drama are introduced. There’s a battle for ownership of the burial, still not fully uncovered, Peggy is feeling distanced from her husband; developing a relationship with Edith’s cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn). Meanwhile, Edith herself is experiencing her own personal health problems which she tries to keep secret from those excavating her land by hand, leading her to worry about what the future may be like for her young son, Robert (Archie Barnes).
With such introductions and elements of drama brought in, amongst the backdrop of the looming Second World War – planes are seen frequently flying over the field – the film does lose its quaint sense of intimacy. Such character details and exchanges are mostly introduced in the second half and only have that space of time to be started, developed and finished, all while the main dig is still happening. For a while the dig itself looses some steam as it seems to be pushed aside. The space grows along with the amount of people involved and, again, that once personal connection and feeling is removed. Even Fiennes’ excellent central performance, thick Suffolk accent and pipe, seems to be pushed aside. His serious, and occasionally crotchety, attitude towards his line of work and discussions with Mulligan’s owner who, like her son, is fascinated by the discoveries of what lies beneath her property.
Yet, with all this in mind the film does still hold some form of grip on the viewer. They may not be as entranced by the dig as in the first half of the film, but there’s still something in the remaining details; even if they make the film feel a bit busy, that makes enough to keep things from feeling overly bland. Events might become somewhat generic and lose a sense of spark and flare, but they’re still watchable for the most part, and the majority of the archaeological expedition certainly has a way of keeping you invested – particularly within the first half. In fact such moments are possibly the biggest surprise of the film, the strength of which is perhaps only outdone by Fiennes Suffolk accent.
The second half may be a bit too busy but, The Dig certainly doesn’t feel generic when looking at the calm and effective archaeological trance, matched only by Fiennes understated central performance.