Director: Simon Stone
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James
While Film Dudes have suffered constant rug-pull release delays forr the latest James Bond outing over the course of the last 12 months, those invested in the indie scene have felt similar pangs over Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman – the well-hyped Carey Mulligan vehicle which keeps disappearing just out of sight every time it gets close enough to get excited about again. This week, Netflix offers those of us pining for Mulligan a slight reprieve with The Dig; one of those rosy-cheeked British historical dramas that trades on the pluck and gumption of the English to provide a jolly good and pleasant time for all. With a dash of drama and sentimentalism thrown in for good measure.
It’s 1939, and in the vicinity of Sutton Hoo, middle-class landowner Edith Pretty (Mulligan) procures the services of self-taught, working class archaeologist and excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to survey the curious earth mounds to the rear of her property. Basil takes up the project and the dig begins. It quickly develops that the site will be of significant historical interest. Once that becomes common knowledge, ‘ownership’ of the site and its contents acquires a great deal of additional interest. And while insular widow Edith develops a certain affection for the earthy, no-nonsense Basil, her attention is divided by a downturn in her own health.
Mortality is the most pressing concern throughout The Dig, which insists on framing its events against the coming war; something which ultimately dwarfs the drama unfolding in miniature. Basil and Edith may be confronting relics of centuries past, but they discover them in a stormy present, one that shifts recent traumas to the surface. In the film’s story the grim spectre of death manifests for Edith in her growing ill-health; for her son Robert (Archie Banes) it is there in the memories of his father; for Basil – who suffers a near fatal accident early on – it’s literally inescapable; he’s digging himself into a grave the whole time. Early in the stages of the dig, the site strikingly resembles a trench from the French front in WWI. A visual echo of recent horrors; horrors threatening to repeat themselves as the RAF fly overhead. It’s no wonder that everyone here seems to be looking to another time or place for some semblance of escapism.
Class tensions surface as representatives of the British Museum talk down to and undermine Basil, who takes their presence and priggery to heart. Its indicative of a sense of entitlement that abuts the toil of those whose fingernails are blackened with dirt from dedicated work. Edith’s own past becomes a mystery for Basil to excavate, but this avenue of the story is presented furtively. The same goes for a number of other subplots which are added as seasoning, rather than as fulfilling meals in their own right.
Moira Buffini’s script rings true in its Suffolk idioms and sees that there’s humour to be found in the cadences of rich and poor alike. With a strong cast at his disposal, director Simon Stone doesn’t feel pressed to reinvent the wheel. Fiennes continues to show that he can perform believably across class lines, while Mulligan shines brightest in a delicately restrained role. Late additions such as Johnny Flynn and Lily James promise to only bolster proceedings.
And yet, the more cluttered the cast gets, the less intimate The Dig becomes. And, in the process, more commonplace. Stone’s piece pleases in the moment, mostly, but only as much as any other quaintly observed Sunday afternoon fare one might commonly find on the BBC or ITV. It joins a cluttered burial ground of its own; a land of mild, forgettable dramas, earnest in their production and well-serviced by their actors, but ultimately indistinguishable from one another, and characterised only by an almost fetishistic obsession with the past.
In the end the larger dramas of WWII breaking out feel as though they overshadow the more personal – and more memorable – human interactions that might’ve been more rewarding to focus on. Stone occasionally tilts toward Malick-esque reverence for the relationships between people and nature. But his moves in this direction are too timid to engender similar awe. Instead his film descends into mild-mannered soap opera and heavy-handed sentimentalism.
The Dig may revere the passing of time, but ultimately it does little more than pass time.