Up until recently, depictions of archeologists on the big screen have pretty much been limited to the whip-cracking, fedora-toting adventurer Indiana Jones. However, with Francis Lee bringing fossil-hunter Mary Anning under the spotlight in Ammonite and now Simon Stone unearthing the little-known story behind the excavation of Sutton Hoo, archaeologists are perhaps finally having their time to shine. Carey Mulligan is at the centre of much hype and awards buzz at the moment for Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman. The Dig is a very different, smaller and quieter film and it unfortunately seems to be entirely under most people’s radar (even within the film community), despite it having an absolutely stacked cast.
Mulligan plays Edith Pretty, a wealthy widow living in the beautiful manor house at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk with her young son Robert (Archie Barnes). In 1938, she employs the services of Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), who works for the local Ipswich Museum, but who has no formal qualifications as an archaeologist. She asks him to look into some mysterious mounds on her land and eventually an enormous ship is discovered beneath them. Halfway through the film, more characters come into play, with the arrival of archaeologist Stuart Piggott (Ben Chaplin) and his young wife Peggy (Lily James). There is also Edith’s cousin Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn) – the only main character who is purely fictional – whose main role is to photograph the site. Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) from Cambridge University is put in charge of the excavation (once news gets out that it’s a major find) and much of the film focuses on the tension between him and the self-taught Brown.
A sense of urgency (and therefore excitement) is injected into proceedings because of two main factors – the impending war (with Rory being keen to join the RAF) and Edith’s discovery that she has a terminal illness, giving it a sense of being a race against time. The war also puts things into perspective and the characters are forced to ask themselves why they care so much about ancient history with ‘bigger or more important’ things going on. It also makes them consider legacy and what traces will be left of our time on earth.
The other sub-plot which has been added in to liven things up (although if you’re a history nerd like me, you will find it fascinating enough!) is a tentative romance between two characters, although you will find no Ammonite-style raunchy sex scenes here. This feels slightly tacked-on and as if it belongs to another film, leaving you kind of wishing they had either fully leaned into romance or left it out entirely.
The quality of the ensemble cast is insanely deep – with the excellent actor Paul Ready (from two of the best TV shows of the last decade – Utopia and The Terror) in a minor role as Brown’s boss at the Ipswich Museum and Monica Dolan getting a bit more to sink her teeth into as Brown’s wife. It goes without saying that Mulligan and Fiennes are both tremendous. Fiennes is doing an accent I’m almost certain he hasn’t done before, despite the fact he is actually from Suffolk (a broad accent associated with country folk) and his dynamic with both Mulligan and Barnes is one of the highlights. Brown teaches Robert about astronomy, demonstrating the breadth and depth of the education he has given himself, despite leaving school aged 12.
The cinematography of the expansive Suffolk landscape (although shot in Surrey) by Mike Eley (My Cousin Rachel) is gorgeous and covers the gamut of weathers one finds in an English summer. Stefan Gregory’s score is also a real strength of the film, adding a sense of propulsive anticipation to the excavation scenes and filling the audience with the joy of discovery. The costumes are designed by Alice Babidge (who worked on my favourite film of last year – True History of the Kelly Gang) and Lily James’ Peggy, in particular gets some fantastic outfits.
It’s hard not to be conscious, when watching The Dig, of the aspects of the story that you know have been fabricated to make the film more interesting eg. Basil Brown getting buried alive in the mound at one point, as well as the afore-mentioned romance. Mulligan’s character was really aged 55 at the time of the Sutton Hoo excavation and her character would make more sense if she were older. It is, however, based on a novel written by Lily James’ character’s nephew, so the artistic license was present before it was adapted. It does try to have it both ways, by keeping close to the historical facts while shoe-horning in the odd incongruous subplot here and there. With Stott arriving about 40 minutes into the film and Chaplin and James arriving at almost the exact halfway point, it does make the film feel rather piecemeal. The Piggott’s arc only has half a film to develop and asks us to invest a lot in their characters in the short time we have with them.
However, this was always going to be a hit with me, as I’m the exact target audience for this kind of film. As with Lily James’ other Netflix films The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Rebecca, as well as 2016’s Their Finest and last year’s Summerland – films set in the 1930s and 1940s (yes, especially if they have a romantic element) are very much up my street. So even though The Dig is flawed, it will probably get repeat watches from me. It is refreshing to see a man like Basil Brown at the centre of a British period film and see a corner of England that doesn’t often get any attention. Hopefully The Dig will find an audience on Netflix and not be buried like so many of their good films seem to be. It’s a very well-acted and enjoyable historical film (with lovely costumes and music) which is about history itself. Mulligan and Fiennes are always worth watching and The Dig is no exception.
The Dig is available on Netflix from January 29 2020.
Interview with Costume Designer Alice Babidge – Click Here.