Authenticity, strong acting lift ‘The Dig’ up
In 1939, workers on a British estate unearthed a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon burial site. Among many other items, it contained the remains of a wooden ship and a wealth of priceless artifacts: a sword, a scabbard, a helmet and a large, ornate belt buckle made of solid gold.
The so-called Sutton Hoo site constitutes one of the most significant archeological finds of the modern age; but despite subsequent squabbling over who could keep the cache, this lesser-known historical episode hardly seems the stuff of spellbinding cinema.
Yet Netflix’s brand-new “The Dig” is just splendid — bracingly authentic, flawlessly acted and consistently absorbing.
Carey Mulligan plays real-life widow Edith Pretty, whose estate was peppered with grassy, man-made mounds. As the rest of the country grappled with the growing likelihood of another war, Pretty hired a self-taught archeologist named Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) who eventually made the startling find.
Directed by Simon Stone from a screenplay by Moira Buffini, “The Dig” generates plenty of interest with its meticulous period detail and luscious photography of rural England in both muddy rain and glowing sun.
But mostly, it’s the understated relationship between Pretty and Brown that pulls us in, especially when the pair goes up against local and national officials who want to commandeer the site and its contents.
Mulligan continues to look like one of our hottest young actresses, having garnered accolades in a wide variety of genres: “Pride and Prejudice,” “An Education,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Promising Young Woman,” “Never Let Me Go,” “Mudbound,” “Inside Llewyn Davis.” And Fiennes simply disappears into this enchanting role, making Brown somehow both modest and utterly resolute. By all appearances it was a fairly arduous shoot for the 58-year-old actor as well; the scene where Brown vanishes into a collapsed wall of earth is well-nigh blood-curdling.
The supporting cast is similarly excellent, highlighted by the ever-watchable Lily James and the dashing singer-songwriter Johnny Flynn, both playing late additions to the digging crew; likewise excellent are Archie Barnes as Pretty’s energetic, soulful son, and Monica Dolan as Brown’s stubborn, tender, faithful wife.
Buffini leavens the plot with growing tension over the imminence of war, with worries about Pretty’s failing health and with a subplot in which James’s Peggy Piggott, struggling with a disinterested husband, becomes romantically attracted to the Flynn character.
Frankly, that latter narrative strand — entirely fabricated for this film — is unnecessary and distracting, though the two performers certainly play it to perfection.
Fortunately, “The Dig” makes up for this with a lovely understated theme in which Pretty’s worsening health and a lack of recognition for Brown are tied to thoughts of life’s legacy and what we leave behind — such ideas naturally embodied in the ancient gravesite and its tantalizing treasures.
In this way, “The Dig” turns its quiet and obscure little tale into a saga of almost universal human significance.