As an anxious nation anticipates the start of the Second World War, the widowed Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) hires an itinerant archaeologist, Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), to dig up the mounds on her property in Suffolk, England. Mrs. Pretty has a funny feeling about the land, and she’s right: Mr. Brown unburies what appears to be a massive Anglo-Saxon ship from the seventh century. Once the British Museum swoops in to take over the excavation and claim the treasure for itself, the dig becomes a race against time, both for pre-war England and for Mrs. Pretty, who’s suffering from a secret illness.
Across the opening scenes of The Dig, director Simon Stone draws focus away from his characters. At the film’s start, tracking shots shakily trail Edith and Basil as they meander among the mounds, the camera rarely showing their faces as they speak. And an early action sequence invites some hammy melodrama, complete with slow-motion running, that suggests this will be a film more centered on its storytelling devices than on its story.
But if the tale of the 1939 Sutton Hoo excavation, one of the 20th century’s most extraordinary archaeological events, has a lesson to teach us, it’s to keep digging. And The Dig, despite its early muddiness, ultimately reveals itself as a fiercely focused and surprisingly eloquent film. It achieves an epic sweep not only by sewing together the archaeological and personal plotlines, but also by drawing in the taut imagery of future and past, the airships bound to bring men to their deaths in the months ahead and the underground burial ship that testifies to the deathlessness of the nearly forgotten heroes it once held.
The Dig posits early on the possibility of a love match between the self-assured Mrs. Pretty and the gruff Mr. Brown (our protagonists never get comfortable on a first-name basis), but the awkward formalities of their meet cute give way to something more interesting. Like so much in the film, there are riches beneath the surface layers of their dusty semi-flirtation. Only Mrs. Pretty has the power to convince Mr. Brown of his own singular importance, to help him carve a personhood beyond the boundless dirt he digs in. And, conversely, only Mr. Brown can help Mrs. Pretty to place her own mortality in perspective, to find some peace in being part of immeasurable history. The sturdy simplicity that Mulligan and Fiennes share allows the film’s monumentality to swirl around them, two people who have stumbled upon the colossal.
Sensual flickers ignite into full flames only in a secondary love story, a triangle between the brilliant scholar Peggy Piggott (Lily James), her stiff-upper-lipped husband, Stuart (Ben Chaplin), and Mrs. Pretty’s dashing Royal Air Force-bound cousin, Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn). Dirt and sparks fly as they dig up the ship together, and James gives a particularly detailed performance as Peggy, the lone female excavator, who simultaneously tries to assert her academic authority in her work and her dormant sexuality in her marriage.
Despite the warm, stoic performances of Mulligan and Fiennes, pre-teen Archie Barnes as Robert Pretty, Edith’s son, holds the film’s strands together. It’s Robert who gets to make metaphorical use of the ship and all it might mean as he comes to terms with his mother’s impending death. The film is unafraid to grant Robert the maturity he claims for himself: “I’m stronger than she thinks,” he promises Mr. Brown as his mother’s sickness becomes too serious to ignore, and he proves himself right. Though introduced as a precocious supporting character, a source of some light comic relief, Robert hoists himself into a central role as the plot progresses, the film gently insisting that both his mother and the audience treat this wise, quirky kid with the same grown-up respect afforded anyone else.
Adapted from a fictionalized historical novel by John Preston, the real Peggy Piggott’s nephew, The Dig clearly relishes in having found so many fascinating real people arriving at one place at once, crashing into one another and into the game-changing discovery beneath their feet. In its reverence for history, the film suggests a never-ending chain of excavation. As the Sutton Hoo diggers stand above their glorious discovery, musing about who the people buried inside the ship might have been, what their lives could have been like, what they might have thought and felt, The Dig looks back at its own cast of characters and asks the very same questions.