This Sunday night drama-like archaeology film lacks focus, but features fine work from both Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan
Even with Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan as stars, it can’t have been an easy sell to get The Dig made. This is a film in which the discovery that a long-buried coin isn’t Viking but Anglo-Saxon provides the crux of the second act, an almost impossibly niche emotional centre that will appeal to history nerds (i.e. me), but might seem curious or even off-putting to those with a more casual interest. Stick with it, though, and The Dig reveals a genuinely affecting heart, exploring the melancholy of inter-war Britain alongside the basic human need to be seen and appreciated.
Fiennes plays Basil Brown, an archaeological excavator hired by wealthy landowner Edith Pretty (Mulligan) to uncover the secrets of a series of burial mounds near her home, a site we now know as Anglo-Saxon treasure trove Sutton Hoo. With World War II looming, Basil knows he has to work quickly, to find a new connection to England’s past before it’s violently pulled into an uncertain future, battling through miserable weather and self-important British Museum officials sticking their noses in.
Initially, The Dig looks like a solid star vehicle for Fiennes, sporting a heavy accent and unafraid to get his hands dirty as Basil descends further and further into the earth, but it ends up busier and more complicated than that. There’s a lot of plot to sift through here, some of it compelling, but some of it feeling superfluous. Moira Buffini’s script is adapted from a novel by John Preston, and the literary origins are obvious, with some side stories needing the extra room provided by a novel (or, perhaps, a TV miniseries) to really land.
Fiennes’s role is a showy but unselfish one, and he’s absent for decent chunks of The Dig, though you do really miss him when he’s gone. He balances a long life of disappointment – Basil’s historical contributions always ignored due to his working class origins – with a genuine joy at being to able to work at what he loves, and he has a great chemistry with the rest of the cast, especially Mulligan and Monica Dolan, playing Basil’s wife May. Dolan is saddled with some on-the-nose dialogue, but Basil and May’s relationship is drawn with tenderness and understanding, both actors relishing in the subtleties of a long-term marriage.
Fittingly enough, The Dig does take a while to reveal its depths, and you may bounce off of it at the start, particularly with its visual inconsistency. Director Simon Stone captures the cold, muted beauty of the Suffolk countryside very nicely, but a lot of the early conversations are distractingly over-stylised, the lurching and leering camera pulling you out of an otherwise well-designed period piece. Yet, by the finale, the slow-burn approach mostly pays off, giving rich inner lives to his characters. It helps that it’s so well-performed, from Fiennes to Mulligan, and also to Lily James and Johnny Flynn as younger members of the dig team, while Stone’s camerawork does calm down as the plot finds its feet.
The Dig struggles somewhat to fit all its material into its two hour runtime, but even with some unnecessary loose threads, it’s still a charming and resonant biopic that pays sincere homage to historical curiosity and the passion of academic oddballs. Anchored by an impeccably sturdy Ralph Fiennes performance, it’s the sort of star-studded drama you'd find on Sunday night television with something to offer everyone – even if you don’t know the difference between the Merovingians and the Carolingians.
The Dig is available to stream on Netflix from 29 January.Where to watch