An Old-fashioned Period Piece that Showcases Carey Mulligan at her Best

by Hassan Ilahi

Few archaeological artifacts in English history are as highly regarded today as the Sutton Hoo. Ever since it was first uncovered by archaeologists in 1939 England, the Sutton Hoo has become one of the world’s greatest treasures. Not only did it shed light on the Anglo-Saxon time, but it enhanced historians’ understanding of the Dark Ages. In a perfect world, one would imagine this artifact’s founder Basil Brown to be famous today. However, history isn’t always generous to everyone. Due to his lowly status in society, Brown never received the credit he deserved. Given Hollywood’s fascination with archaeology, Brown’s story merits cinematic treatment. It’s unfortunate, then, that his legacy has been buried in history for a century.

Now, Simon Stone unearths the hidden historical truths behind the archaeological excavation in his latest film The Dig. An informative, heartfelt and sweeping period piece, it celebrates the contributions of a little-known British excavator. With his second feature, director Simon Stone meticulously recreates an extraordinary archaeological discovery. Packed with spellbinding cinematography, exquisite production values and phenomenal performances, it is an admirable adaptation. Although The Dig is undeniably unforgettable, ultimately it is not a flawless film. Its story is formulaic, and sidetracked by an unnecessary fictional romance subplot. Nonetheless, it provides old-fashioned entertainment that will satisfy fans of historical dramas.

Set in pre-WWII Britain, The Dig tells the story of a landowner whose estate becomes the unlikely site of a historic dig. Carey Mulligan stars in the leading role as Edith Pretty, a wealthy widow that believes treasure is buried underneath her home. When she hires an archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to unearth burial mounds, Pretty’s suspicions are confirmed. However, Brown’s excavation comes to a sudden halt when authorities take control of his work. As Brown is disregarded, classism threatens his claim over treasure.

Director Simon Stone is a newcomer to the field of archaeology. Stone is an acclaimed Australian filmmaker that is most famous for his adaptations of theatrical plays. His 2015 debut The Daughter offered an intimate glimpse at the life of a disconnected son that discovers a dishonorable family secret after returning home. With The Dig, however, Stone has crafted his first historical period piece. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to recreate a historic archaeological discovery on the big-screen, but he pulls it off seamlessly. Using spellbinding cinematography, Stone draws viewers into the world of archaeologists that discover prestigious treasure in 1939 England. Stone’s decision to shoot the movie using lens flare photography is risky, but it works tremendously. Working alongside cinematographer Mike Eley, Stone deftly uses lens flare photography to depict the historical event. It captures the marvel and wonder of archaeological discovery, making audiences feel as if they are actively witnessing a moment in history. Stone excels at recreating the expedition, and his latest feature is worth watching on Netflix for this reason alone.

If stories of archaeological discoveries do not attract your attention, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to see The Dig. Stone excels at using real locations to replicate the archaeological dig. Stone’s decision to shoot the movie in real-life locations where the archaeological expedition occurred pays off tremendously. Assisted by production designer Maria Djurkovic, Stone expertly employs locations across England to recreate the dig. Whether it is Suffolk’s windswept landscapes or man-made ship burial sites, each individual location immerses viewers into the historical event. Through these breathtaking locations, Stone gives viewers newfound appreciation for the process of archaeological excavation. Archaeological digging isn’t intended for cinematic depiction. It’s a tiresome procedure that doesn’t always lend itself to exciting entertainment. However, Stone injects energy and momentum into it through well-chosen locales. Besides, the musical score is also worth lauding. Stefan Gregory’s classical score is highly effective. It gives the movie a tender and heartwarming atmosphere reminiscent of Merchant-Ivory classics. Through impressive production values, Stone keeps viewers engaged in treasure expedition.

It is hard to not admire the astonishing performances from the cast.

Carey Mulligan delivers one of the finest performances of her career as Edith Pretty. Mulligan is most famous for playing beguiled heroines in period dramas (ex. 2009’s An Education). With The Dig, she returns to familiar territory in a role that seems to be tailor-made for her. It is not easy to portray a grieving widow that struggles to cope with her husband’s death. It’s a demanding role that requires the actress to convey various emotions with little dialogue. However, Mulligan pulls it off effortlessly. With enchanting expressions, she captures the childlike curiosity, despair and resilience of a sick woman that finds consolation in archaeology during troublesome times. It’s a phenomenal performance from one of the greatest actresses working today.

Ralph Fiennes is remarkable in the role of a humble archaeologist that struggles to achieve recognition for his efforts. While Mulligan gets the showier role, Fiennes is equally superb and worthy of awards recognition. As Basil Brown, he captures the unwavering resilience of the overlooked archaeologist through subtle expressions. Whether he is being rejected by upper authorities due to class differences or passionately pursuing his work, Fiennes effectively uses his expressions to convey Brown’s humility. It’s a marvelous performance that honors the legacy of a forgotten historical figure.

Despite its extraordinary performances, however, it’s unfortunate that The Dig doesn’t dig deep enough into the buried truths of its story. Moria Buffini’s screenplay is formulaic, and arguably the film’s primary weakness. Buffini’s decision to focus solely on the technical logistics of archaeological discovery is bold and innovative, but it hinders the story. Due to this misguided technique, there are times when the film feels more like a dry history lesson rather than compelling true story. Moreover, the film is undermined by a needless romance subplot. During its second-half, the movie centers on a fictional subplot involving wartime romance. Instead of serving a notable purpose, it simply becomes a distraction from the central story and hinders the viewer’s engagement. At worst, this love story comes across as a misjudged tactic to attract modern audiences to the film. Period dramas thrive based on their storytelling, and in this sense The Dig falls short of expectations.

On a final note, it’s worth mentioning that The Dig isn’t a movie that everyone will dig. Given its complicated jargon, the film may not appeal towards mainstream audiences. The film features scenes in which the characters discuss technical logistics of archaeological excavation. Viewers that aren’t well-versed in archaeology may find it difficult to follow these scenes. In order to appreciate the movie, viewers must be familiar with archaeology history. Due to its scholarly theme, The Dig won’t satisfy mainstream audiences.

In the end, The Dig is an adequate period drama with gaping holes that often exceed its shovel-like clutch. An entertaining but overambitious adaptation, it immortalizes a little-known British excavator. If Cinema has the power to dig up historical truth, one hopes it will unearth interest in a figure whose role in discovering one of Britain’s greatest treasures deserves recognition today.

Hassan’s Grade:  B+