For people looking for a meditative break from our current turmoil-filled reality, The Dig is a wonderful escape. There are many reasons this film might have piqued initial interest: First, it stars Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes and a fine cast of other notable actors; second, you could tell from the trailer that this is one of those British films, a period piece filled with silences and restraint; and finally, it’s based on a real-life historical event, the excavation and discovery of the Sutton Hoo site (an Anglo-Saxon burial ground) in Suffolk in 1939.
Those were the reasons I’d decided to watch The Dig as soon as I saw the first windswept image of Mulligan, looking both determined and grim, much before I saw the trailer. But soon after I had settled into the couch, I found myself gradually immersed in the slow lyricism of the film. Right from the opening frame—which shows Fiennes sat on a rowboat, being ferried with his bicycle across a river; oars gently pulling through the lapping waters, birds in the sky, golden hour in the horizon—I could sense myself coming to a still. It felt like a balm.
The Dig tells the story of Edith Pretty (Mulligan), landowner and widowed mother, who employs Basil Brown (Fiennes), a self-taught excavator/archaeologist, to dig up the large mounds of earth on her Sutton Hoo property. When Brown asks Pretty why she didn’t go through the usual route of contacting a museum, Pretty replies that she did, but the impending second World War means that resources are scant, and Brown was the best bet—even though he has been described as a challenging man, with unorthodox ideas. The war looming in the background adds a measure of urgency to the otherwise unhurried pace of the film.
As Pretty and Brown stand on the land, considering the project ahead of them, you understand the camaraderie between them—and their silent regard for each other. In my view, it’s not romance brewing between the two, even though Pretty is rather lonely in that big mansion in the middle of an English countryside. Her son’s fantastical tales of science-fiction and adventure bring a smile to her face, for one. But Pretty seems to be looking more for company and meaning to her frail life, and Brown’s stories and surmises about what lies beneath are something to go on.
Not much else happens by way of the plot. Brown digs, at first alone, then with some help from the Pretty household. It quickly becomes apparent that the Sutton Hoo site has historical importance. That’s when the big shots from the British Museum come to throw their weight around. A small team of archaeologists then starts working on the site, carefully dusting away through layers of Suffolk soil.
The drama lies within the interactions between these people who have come together for the project: Pretty and Brown, the team of experts from the British Museum headed by Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) and including Stuart (Ben Chaplin) and Margaret Piggot (Lily James), Pretty’s cousin Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn) and Brown’s wife May (Monica Dolan). As the archaeological team digs deeper, they also unearth emotions and motivations within themselves and those around them. Stott is delightfully annoying as the overbearing British Museum veteran, sneering at Brown’s lack of credentials and spluttering when put in his place by Pretty. James is endearingly conflicted as a young wife and junior archaeologist, trying to find her place in her marriage and the work field—even in her attraction to the roguish Rory.
Although it all may veer towards a cliched representation of British-ness, Fiennes and Mulligan’s leading turns as Brown and Pretty are charming. Fiennes plays Brown as a man of few words, whose Suffolk accent and weathered look only add to his gruff demeanor. Meanwhile—in a diametrically opposite turn from her revenge-drama portrayal of Cassie in Promising Young Woman—Mulligan is mesmerizing as a cardigan-wrapped widow, who offers up wry smiles and tentative glances as she battles her own lonely demons.
The cinematography by Mike Eley bathes Pretty’s lands in a golden glow. Things get muddy, of course, especially when the site needs to be protected from pelting rain by sheets of tarpaulin. But even then, Brown simply stuffs his pipe with tobacco and quietly puffs away.
Brown asks Pretty at the outset of the film why she wants to dig. For him, it’s a calling. His father taught him how to dig. He’s trying to suss her out: Is she merely interested in what treasure may be buried underneath? Pretty responds that she too was witness to an excavation as a youngster—of her childhood home. She understands the importance of history.
“It speaks, doesn’t it? The past,” Brown replies.
Later on, when the British Museum team arrives, Brown doesn’t want to continue on. He fears his contribution will be overlooked. But his wife May points out that he can’t be a part of something he doesn’t participate in.
The Dig, adapted from journalist John Preston’s account of the Sutton Hoo excavation, was a history I was completely unaware of—and The Dig gives credit where it’s due. The film beautifully brings the account of the people behind one of England’s most famous archaeological events to life. Even if there have been some artistic licenses taken, I know that when I go to the British Museum next—in the near future, one hopes—I will be making a beeline for the Sutton Hoo exhibit.
Director: Simon Stone
Writers: Moira Buffini, John Preston (Book)
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James, Johnny Flynn
Release Date: January 15, 2021 (Theaters), January 29, 2021 (Netflix)
Aparita Bhandari is an arts and life reporter in Toronto. Her areas of interest and expertise lie in the intersections of gender, culture and ethnicity. She is the producer and co-host of the Hindi language podcast, KhabardaarPodcast.com. You can find her on Twitter. Along with Bollywood, Toblerone bars are one of her guilty pleasures.