Preserving the Past
In the British period drama, The Dig, director Simon Stone (The Daughter) uses a real life historic archaeological dig to explore themes of time, mortality, our connection to the past, and the impact each of us has on the future. With the aid of Mike Eley’s spectacular cinematography, which leverages the sparse but breathtaking Suffolk grasslands, the result is a superbly crafted slice of British life with a heaping helping of history thrown in for good measure.
As the drumbeats of war rage in 1939 Europe, wealthy young widow Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) plays a hunch when she hires excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to explore what she believes to be ancient burial mounds on her vast Suffolk estate.
When the project turns out to be much bigger than expected, a team of assistants is brought in to help with the dig, including Edith’s preteen son Robert (Archie Barnes) and eager cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn, Emma). When Basil uncovers something that stands to change our understanding of known history, a meddlesome band of archaeologists, museum directors, and money men flock to the site with differing ideas of who should head the project and who the artifacts actually belong to.
On the people side of the story, there are many wrinkles and folds, a couple of which are reflected in Edith Pretty’s own story. First, there is the fact that she is forced to reconcile her own time on Earth when it is revealed that she has a terminal heart condition. With her young son, Robert, there’s the question of who will take care of him and how. There’s also an extramarital affair that breaks out involving married archaeological couple Stuart (Ben Chaplin, The Thin Red Line) and wife Peggy (Lily James, Baby Driver), that is complicated by Rory’s call to war.
Speaking of war, Stone does an excellent job of juxtaposing the serene English countryside with roiling conflict and danger – from both humans and impending war. As the timeline progresses, we notice what were once rather small flocks of British Spitfires flying over grow in numbers and frequency as they rumble across the cloudy skies. The serenity is shattered when one of the planes sputters out and crashes on the farm, killing its pilot.
Stone, who adapts from the 2007 John Preston novel (inspired by true events), deploys many clever little storytelling devices throughout the film, including one in which he detaches bits of character dialogue and lays them over the scene like a voice-over narrative. It’s a nice touch and a quite brilliant tactic that adds another layer to the film’s many.
Mulligan follows her scorching performance in this year’s Promising Young Woman and delivers yet another memorable turn that, quite honestly – along with an equally strong performance from Fiennes – makes the entire film work. Also starring Monica Dolan (TV’s Black Mirror) as Basil’s caring wife, and Ken Stott (The Hobbit films) as the curmudgeonly government archaeologist, The Dig is a beautifully rendered experience that, despite a somewhat calculated setup and deliberate pacing, delivers great emotional impact. You just might learn something about history as well.
(Released by Netflix. Not rated by MPAA.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.