On the eve of the second world war, Amateur Archeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) is hired by ailing landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) to excavate some mounds on her land, Sutton Hoo. Discovering Anglo-Saxon treasures, the dig soon becomes the focus of fierce academic attention, putting strain on the Pretty household.
The Dig is about the melancholy passing of time. It tells many stories surrounding the titular dig, all of which are concerned with the impermenance of life. The pretty’s have lost their father figure, am absense felt throughout the film. The excavation of some warrior king whose name is lost to history is a sad echo of the affections the family still hold for their lost father. Even the greatest of men doe and fade. Similarly the recovery of swords and armour is a grim forebear of the global conflict to come. They even dig a trench to begin the dig.
The film has been declared historically inaccurate by some critics. I’m of the opinion that films have no obligation to fact but instead to truth. If changing facts and details makes for a more authentic experience of the story or retelling of the events then the priority must be to story over history. Unfortunately far too often the facts are bent to suit a more conventional narrative. This is the case in The Dig where frustratingly the adjustments come at the expense of some of the women involved who are made to some less experienced or are simply replaced by Male counterparts. The character played by Ken Stott who is set up to be the archetypal big city stiff who ruins everything but is in fact demonstrated to be a man of good humour who passionately cares about archeology. It’s a shame that this more robust approach to characterisation is used only sparingly.
The film does become more conventional as it progresses. Early the narrative is sparse allowing character moments and the film’s gorgeous cinematography and editing to drive the experience. Director Simon Stone’s crew utilise hand held camera work and inventive editing to create an arresting stillness. The use of sound is richly evocative of the english countryside. The film stars as England’s There Will Be Blood but all too quickly loses the mystery.
The camera stays close to the actors, showcasing a very capable cast. Ralph Fiennes accent may veer a little but his performance as a simple and gentle man is wonderful. Carey Mulligan is typically brilliant as the frail but determined mother trying to hold it together for her son. Both have fantastic physicality and truly inhabit their roles. It is unfortunate that as the narrative becomes more complex this moving dynamic is lost.
The Dig is a somewhat conventional and slightly messy drama that features an engrossing calmness and menacing foreboding in its early acts and committed performances from its lead actors. It’s a poignant reflection on time and mortality that just loses it’s way in the mud.