REVIEW: The Dig (2021)

Carey Mulligan, Archie Barnes, and Ralph Fiennes in ‘The Dig.’ — Photo: Larry Horricks / Netflix.

Directed by Simon Stone — Screenplay by Moira Buffini.

Back when I was just a very young teenager, my school had arranged for me to receive (what I guess you would call) on-job training for a week with a team of Danish archaeologists. I had had a natural interest in archaeology, and therefore I was thrilled when I got the chance to learn from them. Over the course of that week, I archived a lot of items, I spoke with the archaeologists for quite some time, I got an early look at a history museum’s recreation of a Viking ship (if memory serves), and I even got to take part in an actual excavation. For this reason, I had a particular interest in Simon Stone’s The Dig, a Netflix original film about a historic excavation in England in 1939, and I actually really enjoyed watching it and learning about Basil Brown and Edith Pretty. But I will say that this period drama is probably a little bit too slow for your average Netflix subscriber.

Simon Stone’s The Dig is based on the John Preston historical novel of the same name. It tells the true story of the excavation of Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, England in 1939. The film follows Basil Brown (played by Ralph Fiennes), an excavator, and self-taught archaeologist, who has been hired by Suffolk landowner Edith Pretty (played by Carey Mulligan), a widowed mother of one, to excavate these sizable mounds on her property. Although Brown initially disagrees with her hunch, Edith has a feeling that the biggest mound may contain something special or important. While Edith struggles with health issues, Basil Brown is confronted by renowned archaeologists who want to take over the dig and push him and his efforts to the side.

I think it is totally understandable for your average viewer to find the experience of watching a period drama about archaeology and excavations to be somewhat daunting. It would be completely wrong to call this a thrill-ride, but it is a solid film that tells an important story, insofar as it essentially recognizes and praises people who were not properly recognized in their time. I think there is a lot to like about this movie, which I will get to, but there are also a couple of things that work against the film.

I think the film is frankly a little bit too slow. But my biggest problem with the film is that even though it will undoubtedly be interesting to people, like me, who are interested in archaeology, the film, at a certain point, sort of stops being interested in the details of that part of the story, which is frustrating because that focus is, in part, replaced by (as far as I can tell) a fabricated and completely unnecessary romance subplot involving Lily James and Johnny Flynn’s characters.

But, on the whole, I thought this was a very nice film to watch, even though it obviously does make you upset about how Brown and Pretty’s achievements were not originally properly recognized. Although there are some noticeable handheld shots that may perhaps be slightly distracting to some, I think the film is shot wonderfully. The film really captures the gorgeous British countryside. Furthermore, I did enjoy how Stone and writer Moira Buffini communicated the fact the film was about the past and the future at the same time. For example, when Mrs. Pretty fears for her future, Basil asserts that we live on in what remains of us since we’re a part of something continuing. Finally, I would also like to note that the main performances are solid, with Ralph Fiennes being the obvious standout. I think the dialect that he has put on feels genuine and right for his very likable character. It is a really wonderful performance.

Ultimately, Simon Stone’s The Dig is a solid but understated period drama that Netflix subscribers will, unfortunately, probably ignore. So, while the film’s superfluous and fabricated romance subplot doesn’t work, Ralph Fiennes’ performance and the cinematography help to keep the film afloat. Also, I really thought that the filmmaker did a good job of establishing a connection between digging into the past while the future was still up in the air.

6.7 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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