The Dig is one of those pre-World War II films that is going to end up going under the radar but Carey Mulligan is phenomenal.
Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) is a widow living on a Sutton Hoo, Suffolk farm. This farm just happens to be the home of a few burial mounds. Could the mounds have a treasure buried inside? This is what Edith suspects and she hires amateur archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to take a look. There’s a scary moment early on when the trench collapses. Basil falls into the ground and help is immediately summoned. Help comes to the rescue and the plot moves itself along. The three-month excavation speeds along in cinema time (it must) and of course, England could enter the war at any given moment. It’s really a race against time. While all this is happening, Edith experience health problems and learns what she has is incurable.
The Ipswich Museum is also involved with the excavation. James Reid Moir (Paul Ready) and Guy Maynard (Peter McDonald) want nothing more than to undermine Basil. Brown is reluctant to no surprise. Originally, Brown and Pretty believe the site to be a Viking burial ground. Before too long, Brown begins to suspect it’s older, maybe Anglo-Saxon. They later help out but that’s the extent of it.
With all of this going on, Basil is too busy to return his wife’s many letters. Suddenly, May (Monica Dolan) shows up out of the blue so he takes her to visit the excavation site. It’s the least he can do!
Edith’s young son, Robert (Archie Barnes), loves what is happening on their farm. Moreover, Robert and Brown have a shared interest in astronomy. The two of them manage to strike up a strong bond. When Edith is in London to check in on her health, her (fictional) cousin, Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn), stops by for a visit at her Suffolk home. As if this isn’t enough, Charles Phillips (Ken Stott), James Brailsford (Eamon Farren), and William Grimes (Arsher Ali) believe that it is in the best interest for everyone involved that the British Museum take over. Easier said than done–Edith isn’t feeling well so Brown sees his way out. Robert, who has a strong bond, chases after him so that he manages to come back. Upon his return, a new pair of archaeologists are at work, Stuart Piggott (Ben Chaplin) and wife Peggy (Lily James).
There’s some sexism to no surprise. But again, this film takes place just before WWII. Peggy is only hired because of her size. This only leads to being further embarrassment later on. One cannot help but feel for Peggy in this situation. We’re also watching her marriage fall apart in front of our eyes. Is it a surprise? Not really. I feel like we start seeing things fall apart in front of our eyes. Even if this is based on a historical novel, it’s rather sad when you start finding yourself rooting for somebody to cheat on their spouse. In any event, I really want to see more of Lily James. The actress is certainly leading material even if her role is more of a supporting performance. Can we please get a spinoff about Peggy?
A World War II era film is typically an awards contender. In an ordinary year, this film would certainly be no exception. However, Mulligan is also in Focus Features’ Promising Young Woman. It’s a shame that The Dig is not getting an awards push because this film is just as deserving. In any event, the actress is absolutely remarkable in her performance as Edith Pretty. Mulligan brings grace to the screen much in the same way that any Classic Hollywood star did.
As much as this film is about Edith, it’s also about Basil Brown. In many ways, Fiennes helps to give the archaeologist the recognition he deserves. On screen, at least. In watching the film unspool before our eyes, we learn just how much Edith and Basil have in common. A shared bond is how their lack of education brings them together.
Moira Buffini’s screenplay is based on John Preston’s novel. Fun fact: John is Peggy’s nephew. I went into this film knowing very little other than the fact that it is set on the heels of war. The post-script alerts me to the fact that The Dig is indeed based on a true story. What Basil Brown discovered in burial mounds on Edith Pretty’s land is a historic discovery in and of itself. I mean, this discovery changed everything we know about historic England! If I ever make my way across the pond to England, I’ll want to check it out–after taking in The Beatles sites, of course.
One thing to note before I wrap up: Edith Pretty was five years older than Basil Brown in real life. This places her in her mid-50s during the time in which the film took place. While I like Carey Mulligan and think she’s an amazing actress, this also makes her twenty years younger than Pretty when the film takes place. Fiennes, for what it’s worth, is closer in age to the real-life Brown at the time. It makes one wonder if they bothered to consider Edith Pretty’s age or did they want a younger star as opposed to an older age-appropriate actress for the role?
When we think of archaeology, it’s very easy to think of Indiana Jones on a classic adventure. This certainly is not the case here. There is no Indiana Jones-esque adventure to be found but what The Dig gives its viewers are characters to care about long after the film ends. I hope this film will inspire someone to become an archaeologist for a living. More importantly, please don’t let The Dig go under the radar.
DIRECTOR: Simon Stone
SCREENWRITER: Moira Buffini
CAST: Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James, Johnny Flynn, Ben Chaplin, Ken Stott, Archie Barnes, Monica Dolan