Based on the novel of the same name by John Preston, The Dig is a fictional retelling of the events of a 1939 excavation in Sutton Hoo, Suffolk.
Set just days before Britain’s declaration of war of Germany that marked the start of World War II, The Dig stars Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes, and details their discovery and subsequent excavation of two medieval cemeteries.
While many of the events of the movie have some basis in reality, the book itself took great liberties with actual events, and The Dig is further adapted from that, and so, going in, it’s important to remember that everything you see is twice removed from proven fact.
With that said, it’s a beautiful film. It’s a mesmerising step into 1930s Britain, and throughout there’s the subtle undercurrent of impending war, which serves to add a subtle weary hopelessness to proceedings.
Pulling off that sort of layered drama isn’t easily, but luckily, there’s not a single performance out of place. Carey Mulligan in particular is truly impressive, despite the issues of Hollywood ageism her casting raised; in her mid-30s, she was cast to play a woman in her fifties, despite rumours that Nicole Kidman (who’s actually in her fifties) was considered for the part. Ralph Fiennes is also singularly charismatic in the role of the intelligent, yet uneducated, Basil Brown, but by far the best performance of the movie was Archie Barnes as Robert Pretty, the son of Mulligan’s Edith. A young, as yet unproven actor, Barnes delivers an ineffably heartfelt performance as the young, mature beyond his years boy grappling with the absence of his father and the looming presence of war.
While it is, without a doubt, an interesting, emotionally driven movie, The Dig is not without its issues. Director Simon Stone is primarily a theatre director, and his inexperience in the realm of movies manages to shine through in small ways. Overuse of floating camera shots and bizarre editing of various scenes audio-visual synchronisation is all too prevalent, although this isn’t anything that takes away from the movie’s beautiful, slightly confused story.
While the movie’s book-based nature means this isn’t entirely the fault of Stone or of writer Moira Buffini, The Dig undergoes something of an identity crisis in its relatively short run time.
The Dig tries hard to imply a romantic connection between Brown (Fiennes) and Pretty (Mulligan) early on, and the two share an undeniable chemistry, yet it soon abandons this narrative line after the second act’s introduction of new characters, and we see little more of Brown and Pretty’s relationship. It was an odd choice on the part of Stone to include such heavy-handed hinting at their potential romance knowing that it would promptly be abandoned in order to give two younger cast members their moment together in the spotlight, and its the one aspect of the movie that leaves you feeling a little cheated when the credits begin rolling.
Despite these few minor criticisms, The Dig is a far more interesting movie than its premise implies, and it’s well worth watching for the cast’s stellar acting talent alone.
Summary: An unexpectedly well paced and entertaining historical drama, The Dig manages to make archaeology nearly as exciting as the war its characters are about to face.