The Dig (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): Their friendship over burial mounds

Netflix film “The Dig”, which was released on last Friday, is a low-key period drama mainly revolving around two different people who happened to get involved in one historic excavation of the 20th century England. While sensitively observing the development of their unlikely friendship, the movie also carefully follows the excavation process, and the overall result is a slow but engaging experience despite several weak aspects.

The excavation site in question is Sutton Hoo, a rural area which is located in Suffolk, England. Although this area had a number of large burial mounds which clearly suggested an old history behind them, it did not draw much attention as nothing much was dug up from the ground for several hundred years, and then the excavation of 1939 finally came to reveal what had been hidden under the ground for more than a thousand years.

The screenplay by Moira Buffini, which is based on John Preston’s historical novel of the same name, begins the story with the deal between a wealthy landowner named Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) and a local self-taught archaeologist-excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes). As a smart woman who has been interested in archaeology since she was young, Edith strongly believes that there is something worthwhile to be excavated somewhere below her estate in Sutton Hoo, and she is willing to hire Brown even though he seems ‘less qualified’ than others, but then Brown refuses her offer because he will not get paid enough for his valuable service. In the end, Edith agrees to increase his wage in addition to providing a closer spot to stay, and Brown soon embarks on the excavation along with a couple of local workers to assist him.

At first, the situation does not seem that promising to say the least. As looking around her estate along with her, Brown reminds Edith that she is not the first one to try to dig up anything from the ground, and he shows her a bit on where they should start at the beginning. As appreciating and respecting Brown’s insight and knowledge more, Edith comes to share more with him their common passion on discovering and preserving the past, and she is adamant about keeping hiring him even when a couple of fellows from a local museum request her to send him a seemingly more important spot which may need him more. After all, it is 1939, so they and many other local archaeologists are really running out of time and resource as the war is approaching day by day, and Sutton Hoo does not look that significant to them despite Edith and Brown’s insistence.

Of course, Brown finally comes to prove that Sutton Hoo does have something invaluable under the ground, and Edith is certainly delighted a lot by this wonderful discovery, but the situation subsequently becomes a little more complicated than they expected. Once Brown reported to the local museum what he has just found in Sutton Hoo, several archaeologists led by Dr. Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) come to Sutton Hoo, and Brown is naturally concerned about whether he will not receive the credits for his discovery, which gradually turns out to be quite more significant than expected as he and others carefully dig up the site step by step.

Although what they are excavating may not look that awesome on the surface, their following moments of discovery are more enough to convey to us how important those small artifacts excavated from the ground, which is revealed to be a bountiful burial site of the 7th century. As a matter of fact, a number of different artifacts found from this burial site revealed that the Anglo-Saxon culture of that period was actually more sophisticated than many archaeologists thought before this monumental discovery, and it goes without saying that these artifacts are some of the most valuable national treasures in Britain.

Meanwhile, that gloomy possibility of the war continues to increase outside, and that certainly concerns Edith a lot, who turns out to have a serious illness which may end her life at any point. While often feeling conflicted about how she should handle the matters involved with the discovery from her estate, she is also quite worried about the future of her young son Robert (Archie Barnes), who, as a bright young kid, has surely sensed what his widow mother has been hiding from him.

Leisurely rolling its story and characters under its calm pastoral mood mixed with some melancholy, the movie generates some nice human moments among its several good main cast members. Although she may be too young considering her real-life counterpart was 56 at that time, Carey Mulligan gracefully balances her character between aching vulnerability and firm determination, and Ralph Fiennes is as stoic as required while complementing well his co-star. In case of the supporting characters surrounding them, Lily James and Johnny Flynn are fairly good even though their romantic subplot does not seem that necessary to the story, and Ben Chaplin, Ken Stott, Archie Barnes, and Archie Barnes are also solid in their respective roles.

On the whole, “The Dig”, which is directed by Simon Stone, may not dig up any new ground in terms of story and characters, and it sometimes looks like trying a bit too hard especially during its chronologically jumbled finale, but it is still held well together by its good mood and the enjoyable performances from Mulligan and Fiennes. Yes, this is definitely a familiar stuff, but I had a good time with it anyway, so I will not grumble for now.

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