The Dig is a touching film that humanises rural Britain on the eve of the Second World War, held up by the fantastically sincere performances of Ralph Fiennes, Carey Mulligan, and child actor Archie Barnes.
Based on a true story, the film follows amateur archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) as he is employed by the widowed Edith Pretty (Carry Mulligan) to excavate the mysterious (and now famous) Anglo-Saxon burial mounds of Sutton Hoo. Everything feels distinctly British in a quaint and quiet setting, from the reserved characters to the pre-war backdrop.
The growing friendship between Brown and the ailing Pretty is one of the most touching parts of the story. The archaeological discovery takes a back seat as the human drama propels the narrative forward.
However, the film does at times struggle to fill its near two-hour running time. The discovery takes place halfway through, allowing the introduction of various additional characters and their respective romantic struggles. Both Lily James’ character Peggy, and Ben Chaplin’s character Stuart, look to other people despite being recently married. These narratives extend the drama and length of the film but feel forced and empty of any real character development. The issues we see are largely surface level and predictable. They move the film’s focus away from Fiennes and Mulligan whose problems and vulnerabilities remain the most intriguing part.
In one scene Fiennes asks what our legacy will be in five hundred years’ time and what will remain of us. I found this to be the most profound and self-reflective moment of the film. We are watching people who lived in the past, excavating the remains of an earlier age and wondering how people of the future will view them — we enter the same process by watching the film. Audiences are confronted with the question of where we, the viewers, fit in the continuum of history.
The Dig is a beautifully shot and heart-warming story of human experience and struggle. Its charming Britishness, interesting philosophical questions, and poignant acting performances make it a soothing and emotional watch despite periods where the film strains to reach its unnecessarily long running time.
The Dig was released on Netflix on the 14th of January.