With January almost over and any remnants of hungover festive spirit will and truly gone, it is always around this time of the year that I am more susceptible to the charms of a good old fashioned British period drama. It just so happens that Netflix were more than happy to scratch that particular itch for me with their latest high profile offering, The Dig. Second World War setting? Check. An array of familiar British acting faces? Check. Coziness and contentment achieved? Pending…
Based on a 2007 novel by John Preston, The Dig is a fictionalised reimagining of the 1939 excavation of Sutton Hoo, a large scale discovery in Suffolk, England that is regarded as one of the most important archeological events in the country’s history. Hired by landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) to explore the burial mounds on her property, local excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) finds himself butting heads with the big wigs of the British Museum over leadership, all set amidst the looming shadow of World War II and Edith’s own declining health.
On the whole, my feelings on The Dig are frustratingly mixed, and I say frustrating because I think the narrative trying to incorporate and cover too much prevents it from being a great movie, pulling it back into the realm of just ‘good’. I love pretty much everything about the central story of the dig itself, and of the central partnership between Edith and Basil and their various trials and tribulations both professionally and personally. I suppose in an attempt to pack as much of the novel’s content into the picture, there is also a significant romantic side plot between some supporting characters that frankly I don’t think needed to be there.
The Dig is at its best when, funnily enough, it is concentrating on the actual dig and the various thematic lines that stem from it. When it veers too far from its original premise, the aforementioned romance being case in point, there is a loss of focus that ends up making things feel more middling as a whole. It’s a real shame in my opinion because along with a couple of really magnificent leading performances, The Dig boasts more interesting and impressive singular shots than most of the average period dramas I have seen in the last few years. I found myself, literally saying out loud, “what a beautiful shot” on more than one occasion!
The magnificent leading performances that I speak of are those given by Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes, with Fiennes in particular doing some of his best work for a long time. As Edith Pretty, Mulligan is a younger version of the real life figure at the time by some twenty years, but she injects a maturity into her performance that really works. It’s a wild thought to realise that my month began with Mulligan in Promising Young Woman and ended with her in The Dig. I can’t think of two more different characters, and that is nothing but testament to her impressive range! I might be biased though, I have loved Carey Mulligan ever since the days of An Education.
Effortlessly stealing the show though, in my opinion, is Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown. A humble, unassuming, but determined man who presumably has spent his entire life fighting to have his non-Oxbridge educated opinions and experience valued equally to his ‘paper qualified’ peers. There is something in the quiet stoicism of Fiennes’ performance that makes him instantly endearing, and whilst the character isn’t charming in the classic sense, there is certainly a warm charm that comes through in his interactions with Mulligan, and also Edith’s young son played by Archie Barnes.
It’s really refreshing to see a movie like this about a relationship between a male and a female that doesn’t have to move from platonic to romantic. Unfortunately, it almost feels like the lack of romance between Basil and Edith is what inspired the inclusion of the lesser side plot, and whilst Lily James and Johnny Flynn are perfectly fine in their roles, it just feels like it belongs in a completely separate movie. Additionally, the fact that both James and Flynn are at lead star stages in their careers gives the narrative an even bigger feeling of fraction. On its own, their romantic story is a perfectly serviceable one, but there is just something between it and the actual dig that doesn’t fit together in the wider scope of the film.
Overall, despite it’s flaws, I have to say that I was genuinely surprised by how much I liked The Dig. An insight, albeit fictionalised, into a moment in British history that I hadn’t really heard of before. Two strong leading performances, particularly strong in Ralph Fiennes’ case, really elevate the picture, along with the really beautiful cinematography and shot framing that adds a further layer of quality. Perfect for this time of year, highly recommended!