As awards season lingers on the horizon, more and more films are being released with the hopes that they will be successful come trophy time. One such film that has snuck onto the scene and made a big impact is Simon Stone’s period drama The Dig. Based on the 2007 novel of the same name by John Preston with a script written by Moira Buffini, The Dig follows the 1939 excavation at Sutton Hoo which is often regarded as one of the most significant excavations in history. Taking place on land owned by Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) and with a team led by archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), the discovery of an Anglo-Saxon ship filled with gold and other precious items brings hope to the community contrasting with the context that Britain will soon be at war.
Stone’s direction is beautiful and poetic, making the most of the natural landscape that encapsulates the film. Immersing itself in the surrounding countryside, we never really leave the estate grounds with the exception of Pretty visiting a doctor in the city and Brown going home. Just as the group’s obsession with their findings begins to physically and emotionally change the land, the audience becomes equally familiarised as we see the progression of their work. Stone isn’t interested in the actual treasures found but the people who find them and how they are changed by their experience.
The script written by Moira Buffini takes a while to find its feet but once it is grounded, it begins to flow nicely. The first 20 minutes see a lot of seemingly significant events that lead up to the initial discovery of the ship without really getting to know the characters. However, it is actually through excavating the ship that we see the characters challenged and tested beyond their capabilities. There has been some controversy regarding the portrayal of the female characters which is worth noting. At the time of the film’s events, Edith Pretty was around 56 years old whereas Mulligan is two decades younger. However, I am glad that they didn’t attempt to make her look older through make up as that would have been too distracting. The main issue is with the characterisation of archaeologist Peggy Piggott (Lily James). Piggott is portrayed as clumsy and aloof with no real expertise of archeology, however, she was a respected member of the archeology community at the time of the film’s events. I am not sure why the decision was made to make Peggy like this or why a fictional love affair was written in but it would have been better if Buffini had stuck to a more factual portrayal.
Ralph Fiennes is fantastic as excavater Basil Brown. A quiet and observant man, Brown is clearly passionate about his work and although he does fight for better pay, it is clear that he does not request a huge financial reward for his findings. As can be expected, Fiennes is brilliant and the film is lifted on his shoulders. His performance stops the film from becoming generic and boring as his character is the audience’s way in to this world of affluence and exclusivity. Whereas the curators who work in the museums only care about the treasure and getting the credit and profit, Brown wants to ensure the integrity of the excavation process itself. Coming from humble beginnings and trained by his own father, archeology and excavation is something that Brown had an incredible affinity for. Even though Fiennes isn’t onscreen a lot of the time, especially in the second half of the film, his presence is always felt because of the influence he had over finding the ship.
It’s clear that this is Carey Mulligan’s time to really shine as she delivers a wonderful performance as Edith Pretty. Although Pretty was two decades Mulligan’s senior at the time of the film’s events, Mulligan makes the most of the role and really shows Pretty’s struggle in a way that feels completely believable. Within moments, you forget about the age indiscrepancy. Through the duration of the film, it becomes clear that Pretty is suffering from an unknown illness that can cause issues with her heart should she find herself in overwhelmingly stressful situations. As the excavation begins to unearth the treasures in the land, Pretty’s illness becomes more severe and debilitating as though she is part of the land herself. I would have loved to have seen even more scenes with Pretty in her role as a landowner and the pressures she faced from the museum curators but Mulligan still pulls it off. Naturally she is garnering more attention for Promising Young Woman which is by far her standout performance and career best but her turn in The Dig is not one to be missed.
The score by Stefan Gregory is impeccable and provides a beautiful and classic backdrop to the film. Not overshadowing the onscreen activity, the score is subtle and quiet but once you notice it, you can’t help but pay completely attention to it. Simple and peaceful, the score captures the serenity that the countryside brings despite the war that is looming in the distance. The final scene in which we see Brown and his team filling the mound feels more prominent thanks to the reflective music that highlights the trials and tribulations of the excavation.
Filled with a flurry of familiar faces of the big and small screens, The Dig takes on a lot of storylines which can be overwhelming at times but the beautiful direction and incredible performances, particularly by Fiennes, keeps you drawn in. With beautiful production and costume design, The Dig may appear as generic on the surface but you simply have to look a little deeper to really find the beauty in the characterisation and production beyond the script. Stone clearly has an affinity for creating films in a natural environment that feel huge in scope so it will be exciting to see what he does next.
What did you think of The Dig? Let me know in the comments below!
The Dig is available to watch on Netflix now!