Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the big deal?
The Dig is a historical drama film released in 2021 and is based on the 2007 novel of the same name written by John Preston. Like the book, the film is based on the real-life excavation of a site near Woodbridge in Suffolk known as Sutton Hoo, led by amateur archaeologist Basil Brown under the instructions of the land's owner Edith Pretty. The film stars Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James, Johnny Flynn, Ben Chaplin, Ken Stott, Archie Barnes and Monica Dolan and was directed by Simon Stone. The film received a limited release through Netflix—meaning that box office totals are unavailable and irrelevant—and it achieved a mostly positive response from critics with Mulligan's and Fiennes' performances receiving special attention. Despite some apparent inaccuracies, the film was nominated for five BAFTA awards.
What's it about?
On the eve of the Second World War in 1939, Suffolk landowner Edith Pretty contacts local self-taught archaeologist Basil Brown in order to excavate some mysterious burial mounds on her land. With members of the British Museum unavailable due to the war preparation, Basil represents her best opportunity to examine the mounds and discover what lays underneath. Initially reluctant, Basil changes his mind and begins to dig through the earth—completely unaware of the impending significance of his discovery. As the dig progresses, he spends more time with the widowed Edith and her young and inquisitive son Robert.
In order to assist Basil, Edith sends for her cousin Rory Lomax to help with the project and document it with his camera. Once word of the dig spreads beyond Sutton Hoo, the British Museum sends renowned Cambridge archaeologist Charles Phillips to take over the dig. Charles also brings in his own people, including the recently married Stuart and Peggy Piggott, and Basil fears that his snobby contemporary may take Basil's claim to whatever they uncover.
What's to like?
The Dig is not the film for anyone looking for thrills and spills. Instead, it's the cinematic equivalent of a bowl of chicken soup: not that exciting or interesting but it's old fashioned, comforting and even warming. It's a hard film to dislike, thanks in no small part to the beautiful cinematography which makes Suffolk look as glorious and rustic as it did when Constable last sat down in front of an easel. The misty morning sunrise and featureless fields are views I know all too well as I work in rural Suffolk myself, albeit not in a farming capacity! But it's nice to see my part of the UK looking as appealing and inviting as it does here, especially as we're normally portrayed as being mostly country bumpkins or lost extras from The Wicker Man.
There is also much to savour among the cast, chief of which are the performances of Mulligan and Fiennes. They stand out among an impressive supporting cast including young Archie Barnes as Edith's idealised and imaginative son Robert. Fiennes, originally born in Suffolk, adopts a convincing accent and is a world away from his bombastic portrayal of Voldemort in the Harry Potter films, turning Basil into a genuinely intriguing character and perhaps most importantly, a likeable one. For her part, Mulligan delivers another quality performance as an upper class English lady although one struggled to keep her emotions in check at times. The film also has a rich attention to detail, not unsurprising for a film about an archaeological dig— costumes and settings all look and feel authentic which gives the film the feel of a classy costume drama the BBC like to produce (and who originally had the rights to the project). All in all, this is a very easy film to watch and it's pleasant enough to do so.
- Mulligan was just 34 when she was cast in the role of Edith Pretty who was actually in her mid fifties during the events portrayed. However, the role was originally to be played by Nicole Kidman when the film was first announced back in 2018 but she withdrew from the project, allowing Mulligan to replace her.
- The character of Rory Lomax was created for the novel and film. The dig was actually documented by two teachers - Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff - and Osbert Crawford, an archaeological officer from the Ordnance Survey. These characters were removed to allow the creation of a romantic subplot.
- Sutton Hoo is the site of two medieval cemeteries dating back to the sixth and seventh centuries, one of which contained a previously undiscovered buried ship containing a horde of Anglo-Saxon artefacts. Most of these artefacts are now in the possession of the British Museum and the site itself is now maintained by the National Trust.
What's not to like?
The trouble with The Dig is that the film's pace is similar to that of an actual excavation. I have no problem with this film being described as a slow-burner but it's not so much a fire and more of a tea-light candle. It's not helped by the lack of a traditional narrative either - the closest the film has to an antagonist is the pompous Charles Phillips who is played with gusto by Ken Stott. As the film rumbles along, there are more elements added to the mix in an effort to make it more compelling but these feel like soap-opera add-ons and largely unnecessary. The romantic subplot is probably the worst aspect of this approach as it's mawkish and very predictable, to the point where it becomes distracting and unwelcome.
What worries me is that going forward, this film (and to some extent, the novel) will be considered the truth despite the historical inaccuracies of the story. I'm certain the story of the actual dig is just as enthralling without the addition of lurid subplots and villainous characters and I feel that this does both Fiennes and Brown a disservice, reducing them to side players in their own story. Brown himself deserves better and Fiennes is good enough to justify more screen time, perhaps focusing on the relationship with his wife May which I would have liked to have seen more of. Lastly, speaking of Fiennes, his use of the Suffolk accent is all the more noticeable when hardly anyone else utilises it. Maybe this was done to emphasise his yokel-ness but it just took me out of things a little.
Should I watch it?
I admit that I may not be the target audience but I did enjoy The Dig despite its glacial pace. It's gentle and inoffensive enough to not ruffle too many feathers but it's well shot, well performed and interesting for anyone with an interest in history. Maybe it's one for the older viewer but sometimes, you need a film that slows things down and isn't reliant on explosions and nudity. It's an easy film to watch and a well-made slice of nostalgia.
Great For: lazy Sunday evenings, grandparents, audiences in or near Suffolk, amateur archaeologists
Not So Great For: adrenaline junkies, speed freaks, non-Netflix subscribers
What else should I watch?
Films about archaeology involve one of two tropes - a hidden evil buried deep that is suddenly unleashed on unsuspecting victims or Indiana Jones. Of the first, your best bets are probably The Evil Dead which saw B-movie icon Bruce Campbell battle hordes of the undead or 1999's The Mummy which is possibly the best film dealing with Egypt's illustrious past and their demonic monsters. As for the second, few cinema-goers will not be familiar with Harrison Ford's whip-cracking hero but the films themselves do have a chequered success rate. By far the best entries are Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, two hugely enjoyable adventures in the proper sense that knock spots off the belated fourth film, Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. That film is so bad, it replaced the phrase 'jumping the shark' with 'nuking the fridge'.
Films set in East Anglia don't come along very often - the first one that came to my mind was Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa which stars Norfolk's most famous fictional media personality Alan Partridge, also known as Steve Coogan. Perhaps the most famous film set in my part of the world would be the classic Vincent Price horror Witchfinder General in which the horror icon played real-life murderer and self-proclaimed witch hunter Matthew Hopkins. Something very different altogether is coming-of-age indie drama The Goob which is the story of a young man falling for a migrant field worker. And if you'll allow me a slight indulgence, Yesterday features many scenes set in Norfolk and specifically the town of Gorleston-on-sea which is as close to being where I was raised as cinema is ever likely to come. In fact, I have family in the crowd during some of the concert scenes!
Release Date (UK)
29th January, 2021
© 2021 Benjamin Cox
Anya Ali from Rabwah, Pakistan on February 19, 2021:
I don't think I'll watch 'The Dig' - I can only sit through movies that get their pacing right.