The Dig

Brand new to Netflix, this film features lovely landscapes, equally lovely performances, and an interesting meditation on death. It’s a film that flirts with being a great movie, but doesn’t quite get there.

The Dig is a fictional adaptation of a novel that was inspired by the true story of the 1939 excavation at the ancient burial site called Sutton Hoo. It tells the story of Edith Pretty, played by Carey Mulligan. She is a widowed landowner who hires Basil Brown, a local archeologist, played by Ralph Fiennes, to excavate a series of mounds on her property. She is sure there’s something under one in particular. He is skeptical, but eventually begins to dig and uncovers an extraordinary find that draws the attention of the whole of England on the eve of World War II.

This film has a lot going for it. Maybe too much. To start it has Ralph Fiennes fascinatingly weathered face and his intense gaze. This man doesn’t do anything without intensity. He is angry with intensity. He is sorrowful with intensity. He is happy with intensity. His eyes are just incredible to watch.

It has Carey Mulligan as a woman contemplating mortality, her late husbands and her own. It’s never expressly stated, but her motivation for uncovering this grave site is her own fears of death and leaving behind her young son. Her own mortality and failing health is mirrored by the uncovering of a thousand year old grave. I found it quite moving and thought provoking. Why do we dig up old remains? Because that’s what we will be someday.

It has the lush English countryside. The movie is shot with a fairly subdued color palette, but it remains a fascinating landscape. I thoroughly enjoyed the two hours I was immersed in this place.

It has a great conflict between the snobs of the British Museum and Basil. He’s not one of the elite and is almost forced out of the excavation.

It has Lilly James in a surprise role. She shows up about halfway through in a mostly superfluous subplot, but still it’s always fun when she’s in a movie. She’s bright and expressive and energetic even if her character could have been cut.

My biggest problem with the movie is the way it paces its story. It takes its time with languid shots of the countryside and the weather, but it cuts out key exposition to hurry things along. So it feels simultaneously slow and rushed.

A good example is the opening sequence. The film starts with Basil in a boat with a bike. They cross a body of water. Then he’s biking down a beautiful country path. Then he’s knocking on Edith’s door. She breezes past him and says “come on” as a means of introduction. Then they’re walking through a field. Then they are haggling over Basil’s pay for excavating the mounds. The shots of them traveling are long and slow, but the introductions of the characters is fast and clipped. The exposition is over in a flash. It’s very slow yet very rushed and this carries on throughout the whole film. The story often feels truncated by the manner in which it’s told.

There’s also quite a few weird filmmaking choices in the movie. The first artifact the crew finds in the excavation in a rivet, but we don’t get to see the moment of discovery. We are told they found something then Basil takes the rivet out of his pocket. It’s a moment that totally changes the course of the movie, but it is played like it’s no big deal. This same kind of thing is repeated throughout the movie. Big moments are small and small moments are drawn out. It’s interested bu it lessened the impact for me. I didn’t feel elation at the discovery so much as mild surprise.

In the end though it won me over. I enjoyed the performances and I especially enjoyed the menagerie of accents on display. There are quite a few regional accents spoken in the film, and it was a lot of fun hearing them speak. I loved the countryside. I found it’s examination of death fascinating. The elements outweighed the bad for me.

There’s a lot to recommend here in spite of its shortcomings. I think if you’re at all interested in British history, the country, or these actors it’s worth watching. It’s my cup of tea. B+

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