Director: Simon Stone
Writer: Moira Buffini (screenplay)
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James
Cinematographer: Mike Eley
Editor: Jon Harris
Streaming on: Netflix
Although The Dig is an adaptation of a novel, the novel itself is based on a 'true story' and the filmmakers decide to take that cue. They reimagine one of those fantastical, news stories – from 1939, no less – of a buried treasure from the Anglo-Saxen period (the Sutton Hoo dig in Suffolk, England) as a polished but dry human story, beautifully washed out, and shot with a bit more intimacy than many middlebrow, period dramas. The film doesn't forget to add a healthy dose of themes derived from thinking about why the subject matter means so much to its characters. The ideas about our impermanence and immortality, through an archeological lens, could be captivating but they are presented without the careful, seamless weaving of the narrative dress that defines good storytelling. It's all a little clumsy when it comes together as one but the performances and certain quieter moments shine through.
The story, set in the large, country estate of Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), begins with her hiring Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), a self-taught excavator, to deal with some large burial grounds on the aforementioned estate. The film unfolds as the story of all the characters who get involved in this twisting and turning project. Unfortunately, the twists and turns, and even the narrative in general, never build up enough momentum, and come off as lacking in conviction. Yes, it tries to tackle the times it's set in, and it tries to slip in the spectre of World War II, but these minor themes slip away very quickly. Although the first half of the film focuses more on Edith and Basil's formal but kind relationship, instead of going the way we expect it to – the catharsis that these characters must find in each other – it has a 'twist', or rather, a shift in focus, to other characters who are introduced late into the film. This ends up working against it.
Peggy Piggot (Lily James), whom the film choses to put under the spotlight over anyone else on the team working on 'the dig', might have made a good lead for a film about her. You could even argue that Peggy is an equally good entry point into this world. She's out of place and unsure, but trying, smart and alive. The film, unfortunately, alters the 'true story' to remove two women, Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff, who extensively photographed the site, to make room for a romance for Peggy. What a waste! The dynamic of the 'beard' – a partner that a queer person is with to protect their identity – with their partner (played here by Ben Chaplin), and another with whom they find love is not devoid of potential. But Lomax (Johnny Flynn), Edith's cousin and site photographer, doesn't do much more than look good alongside Peggy. They are a story we've seen and felt before. Despite everything, however, it will be hard for romantics to not feel their heart flutter a little in certain moments.
The film works better in its parts: the lengthy, subtle performances typical of character studies, as well the meticulously designed look, reminiscent of Terrance Malik at times but still very much preoccupied with its own use of light, almost consistently adorned in browny green and mustard tones, work well apart but not in tandem with the screenplay. This may trick you into feeling like there is something more, something emotionally resolute, but the film does not open up. We are left with tides of feelings that don't splash with authenticity, despite the film's obvious attempt to ground itself in the 'real'. It attempts, and is only partially successful, in coaxing a gentle excitement out of its audience.
One of my big issues with the film is the use of the score: the music will swell up again and again, needlessly, as though if it doesn't fill a quota, it won't have a job
The leading performances are a saving grace. Mulligan brings a frankness to the role that underscores her longings which are hinted at being rooted in the past, and are expressed in her preoccupation with the titular 'dig'. It's a pity that the film doesn't stick with her, and avoids exploring these little hints in favour of the more 'weighty' themes. Much like many such, very British, dramas, someone like Ralph Fiennes comes in to deliver a restrained and powerful performance, melting into his character's accent, mannerisms, and posture. At times, he is heartbreaking. If only these moments were not so few and far apart.
There are a few directorial decisions that you can't help but feel would have improved the film, even whilst keeping the structure intact. One of my big issues with the film is the use of the score: the music will swell up again and again, needlessly, as though if it doesn't fill a quota, it won't have a job. One prominent example of a disappointing scene happens early on, when a trench collapses on Basil. The dialogues are cut out, and we are left with silent, panicked bodies trying to rescue him. All we hear is a supposedly rousing, orchestral piece which may be wonderful in its own context, but in The Dig just feels like the ten thousandth repetition of a technique used in too many such sequences. Even independent of all the other films, the reason why it feels like a repetition even when others don't, tells you that the film hasn't really figured itself out.
It's all a little clumsy when it comes together as one but the performances and certain quieter moments shine through
And it really does have potential. Whilst some sequences could have benefited from the use of the score, others could do with sharper editing. You get the sense that the director – Simon Stone, a veteran of theatre direction – is acting on amateurish impulses (this is his second feature film) in his assumption of our investment. He often spends more time with a scene than he needs to, or prolongs a shot too long. This works successfully for many films, giving them a peaceful quality which envelopes intricate drama within it. It does not work, entirely, here.
At its heart, The Dig is a quiet, little drama, and I wish it would commit to that. Maybe having the courage to let go of what the film "should" be like, would've let it dig much deeper into that quiet, powerful place in our souls that it seems to care about so dearly.