Once you look beyond the not terribly inspiring title of this film, that made me initially think of an Irish psychological drama film from 2018, there is a lot about The Dig that draws the eye. Rather like last weeks review, The White Tiger, we’re deep into “prestige picture” territory here, with what must have been a relatively low-budget adaptation of a critically acclaimed novel, with plenty of eye-catching people in the main roles, and the sort of underdog story that is liable to leave audiences feeling uplifted, despite any darkness the film might also have. And it’s a period piece to boot, which are rather in vogue at the moment (just look at last years surprisingly good Emma.).
In many ways I might be describing The White Tiger again, but The Dig was a very different film once you get beyond the perception that Netflix is after more gongs. For one thing it’s directed by a man, Simon Stone, with a background almost entirely on the stage, and that intrigued me a bit, promising a film that would character-driven and not easily distracted by the nature of the event being portrayed. And, having started life as a production destined to be a BBC special, Netflix’s intervention means that The Dig was able to grab a number of high-profile cast members that I will always go out of my way to watch. So, was The Dig worth getting muddy for, or just a hole in the ground with nothing in it?
Rural Suffolk, in the summer of 1939: Landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) hires local “excavator” Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to investigate what lays within the old burial mounds on her property. As Pretty deals with a growing illness, the quiet and unassuming Brown digs, and becomes convinced that the chosen mound hides secrets that are far beyond what anyone else expects. His discovery soon draws in others, like archaeologist Peggy Piggot (Lily James), whose unhappiness in her marriage leads to an attraction to Pretty’s photographer cousin, Rory (Johnny Flynn).
The Dig is a perfectly serviceable prestige picture. All of its production levels are quite solid, and the central story has both an engaging feel in its depiction of a low-key battle for recognition, and an intelligence in the manner in which it explores the way in which humanity clings to life in the face of death. But unfortunately it has one key, almost glaring, flaw, that reduces its overall quality and will unfortunately confine it to the lesser remembered efforts of everyone involved.
That flaw is what the film does to flesh itself out to feature length. As The Dig is based off a novel, by John Preston, that I have not read, I am unable to say if the flaw is an invention of the film or just a transfer from the page, but for all that The Dig has a strong narrative in its depiction of Edith Pretty, Basil Brown and the Sutton Ho investigation, this material doesn’t seem to have the legs for 90 minutes. To make up for this shortfall The Dig, nearly 45 minutes into its running time, introduces us to a new, seemingly pivotal, sub-plot, involving Peggy Piggot and her failing marriage, that frankly seems like it belong in a different film altogether.
But lets not get ahead of ourselves I suppose. The main story is quite good for what it is, a quiet, almost relaxing, examination of the personalities at the heart of the Sutton Ho find. Fiennes’ Brooke is an imminently likable man, a self-taught archaeologist/astronomer, who is proud of his abilities and yet too polite to stand-up fully to those that denigrate them (while rocking a perfect Suffolk accent). He’s also lonely, distant from his wife with whom he has been unable to have any children (scenes where he coddles Pretty’s son have a layered heartbreak to them) and is always more focused on the earth and what it may be hiding. Mulligan’s Pretty is a lonely widow facing into her final days, with the understandable maelstrom of emotions that such things bring: the dug up mound is both a legacy of the land she has inherited from her deceased husband, and one of the last things she can do before she goes into the earth as well.
The two are brought together in unlikely circumstances, but compliment each other quite nicely. He fiddles constantly with his pipe, she constantly overdresses for a dinner she takes alone, and more outward displays of emotion are as intentionally buried as the ship under the mound, but not in a manner that stunts the actors: quite the opposite really. The drama around the excavation, with Charles Phillips (a blustering Ken Stott) of the British Museum turning up to try and take over the site and garner all the credit – the politics of grave digging we might call it – really is sort of secondary: more interesting than all that are scenes with a depeer emotional resonance, like Mulligan’s perfectly played reaction when Brown’s wife (played well in a few brief scenes by Monica Dolan) shows up and spoils dinner plans.
What starts as a possible romantic plot-line – actually well-executed, in terms of Mulligan’s half-formed and ill-advised efforts to make a more-than-appropriate connection, that Brown doesn’t have the wherewithal to shoot down – rapidly progresses into something more abstract in a sense, a rumination on life, death and the distance in-between. Mulligan’s character, terminally ill, finds her time preoccupied with an elaborate grave, a circumstance that gives rise to all manner of questions. What happens when we die? What is the value in funereal monuments? Will insuring our remembrance keep us alive in a fashion? The Dig seems to land very firmly on the idea that such things have a huge and important role, for our souls and for our understanding of the past. As one excavator explains upon finding the treasure in the mound: “These people weren’t just marauding barterers. They had culture! They had art! They had money!” In other words, they had worth. Everything passes, but not everything is lost.
All the while, the grim spectre of a larger round of death plays out in the background in the late summer of 1939. RAF pilots train from a nearby airfield, buzzing over the Sutton Hoo sight (in a critical scene, one does a bit more than that). Radio broadcasts on last-ditch diplomatic cables back-and-forth between London and Berlin are constant accompaniments. Men in uniform passionately kiss their sweethearts before marching away. The aura is of a warped mixture of panic, fear, lust and wanting to seize the day while you still can. “Cest la guerre” in its infancy, and the dread that it adds to proceedings serves the main plot well – a sequence where Mulligan walks through a London just starting to prepare itself for bombing is striking – but it is also at the heart of the main problem.
The stuff with Piggot seems odd, considering she and her husband were real people. The Dig doesn’t mess around with what it is trying to say, clearly inferring that Stuart Piggor (a passable Ben Chaplin) was a closeted homosexual whose marriage to Peggy was ill-functioning to put it mildly. In the face of that growing dread over the imminent war, she looks elsewhere for emotional and sexual fulfillment, and lands her gaze on Johnny Flynn’s Rory. The author of the novel is Piggot’s nephew, so I don’t doubt he has access to family history the rest of us don’t, but it doesn’t necessarily make for a good story.
It all seems so soap opera-ish, and even though there are ties to some of the main ideas, like taking the opportunities for life before fear of death becomes overwhelming, it doesn’t really seem like it belongs here. I go back to my previous assertion: that Stone didn’t have enough for 90+ minutes, and so had to pull this sub-plot to make it up. It leaves The Dig feeling unbalanced and below what it could have been. Lily James is fine in the role, as is Flynn in his, but this sort of stuff feels like it could have been its own film. You will always be far more interested in Pretty and Brown, with Brown especially relegated significantly in the second half. The few moments where Mulligan and James share the screen are more interesting than those between James and Flynn.
Stone directs a very interesting looking production, and it is the first time in a while with a live-action movie I did find that the cinematography was a major talking point. He and cinematographer Mike Eley seem to want to get across a feeling of disconnection and isolation in a lot of his scenes, and accomplishes this with the camera and editing in two key ways. The first is to let the background utterly dominate the frame, especially the clear Suffolk sky, that often takes up 80% of the overall screen, the actual principals seeming rather small and unimportant by comparison. Combined with rolling fields, large country house rooms, starry skies, curiously underpopulated London streets or even human hands scrabbling in the dirt, the effect is very isolating. The second is how the film consistently plays dialogue more as a narration, with characters in a scene sitting or walking silently as verbal exchanges between the two are played over. This unusual technique adds a sense of distance to a lot of the proceedings, with it often seeming like two people in the same small room are actually very far apart: I suppose very much the intention.
On a more general level, the British countryside looks glorious, the interiors are richly shot, the costuming is top-notch and Stone has the time and space for a few unique sequences. They include an early brush with disaster for Brown when he gets temporarily buried at the mound, where the audio and music is stripped away, or the framing of Piggot’s lodgings with her inattentive husband, who seems positively gleeful at having a room with two single beds. The Dig, from a visual perspective, was not what I was expecting from a man with a predominantly theatre background: Stone has an understanding of how to shoot the outdoors, and how to shoot people, that shows his talent transcends the stage.
The Dig is, for the most part, an enjoyable enough picture, the kind of thing that I welcome Netflix giving a home to. The cast is doing quite good work, and the main story is both an emotional examination of a somewhat niche subject, and a framework for an intelligent discussion of rather weighty existential manners. It looks brilliant, and it sounds good. It’s a shame then that The Dig lets itself down by a recourse to soap opera for large stretches of its second half, with neither of these main plot lines complimenting the other. Instead, they simply dilute the experience. Maybe The Dig should have been a shorter BBC production if we are talking quality, but as I am feeling generous – Fiennes and Mulligan will do that I suppose – I would put it down as a misstep based on ambition, which is not the worst thing I suppose. Party recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).