Adapted by screenwriter Moira Buffini from the historical novel by John Preston, The Dig is a new Netflix production that oozes charm and, while almost sliding into sentimentality, never does - there's too much to discover in this allegorical tale.
The setting is Sutton Hoo in Suffolk in a seemingly idyllic pre-war 1938. A wealthy young widow (Carey Mulligan) is living in a gorgeous period house (I just love the front door). With the house come extensive lands which feature a series of imposing mounds of earth. She engages archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to examine and excavate the mounds. What follows is a find of historical importance that brings academics from the Ipswich Museum and the British Museum to bicker over the find. Along the way we get mildly distracted by husband and wife archaeologists Peggy Piggott (Lily James) and Stuart Piggott (Ben Chaplin) as their marriage founders. But it is the relationship and growing bond with Edith’s son, Robert (Archie Barnes) that delights.
Director Simon Stone may have learned his craft in the theatre but he tackles this true story with an amazing eye for cinema and for relationships. In terms of cinema, Mike Eley’s lush cinematography is breathtaking. Even though this film has been released on the small screen, the countryside and the sky all feel full and rounded - almost like another character in the film. It sets the tone of peace and tranquility which is only occasionally interrupted by fighter planes passing overhead. The shadows they cast and the prognosis of impending war are ever-present. However they don't take form the central story which is the unlikely friendship between Edith and Basil. I think this is the strength that Simon Stone brings; the forming and excavation of relationships.
Along the way we meet May, Basils wife (Monica Dolan). Dolan makes the most of a supporting role as, breathing years of history into a few fairly short exchanges, tell us more about their life together in a fleeting glance or a tentative touch than any amount of expository dialogue. Ken Stott turns up and takes a broadly written caricature of academic archaeologist Charles Phillips and almost humanises him. But it is the two central performances that make this film a delight.
Carey Mulligan brings a juxtaposition of strength yet vulnerability to the character of Edith. Her strength is in standing up to first Basil, then the academics plus her determination, despite failing health to pursue her dream. Her vulnerability is in her frailty, her terminal illness (an illness that my own father shared and ultimately took him too early too). Ralph Fiennes looks like he is relishing the earthiness of the role. He looks like an actor loving what he is doing and is in the zone - it shows. His performance is almost understated. His character is complex, of few words, who spends his days digging in the ground while at night he stares at the stars.
In these difficult days, The Dig is a simple story told well and deserves a wide audience.