Shovels Up: As the British Royal Air Force carry out drills overhead in the days prior to World War II, Mrs. Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), a young Suffolk widow, hires a self-taught excavator, Mr. Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), to unearth the secrets beneath the large, mysterious mounds in her fields. With the help of Pretty’s young son, Robert; her adult cousin, Rory (Johnny Flynn); and a not-entirely-welcome team from the British National Museum, Brown discovers the famous Sutton Hoo treasure, one of the great archaeological finds of the 20th century. It turns out to be a discovery that not only sheds historical light on the Dark Ages but also illuminates a path forward for the Pretty family through the trying days to come.
Handling Rocky Terrain: Credit young filmmaker Simon Stone for deftly handling material that may not be complex in plot but requires a steady, methodical hand — not unlike Brown’s with the trowel and bucket — as it emotionally excavates the predicaments facing Brown, the Pretty family, and Peggy (Lily James), the young wife of one of the archaeological team who develops mutual affections with Rory during the dig. [Spoiler] The Anglo-Saxon boat in the Pretty’s backyard may have taken literal ages to find its place and become one with the Suffolk soil, but Stone slowly reveals — sometimes at a pace that feels measured out in single buckets of dirt — that all parties involved don’t have that same luxury of time.
As the fighter planes and nightly radio broadcasts constantly remind them, a second war with Germany looms near. It’s this inevitable march that fortifies Brown’s determination to see the project through and endure the politics of a dig that might finally gain him professional acceptance, that forces Mrs. Pretty and Robert to finally address her growing illness in a way unique to their bond, and that convinces Peggy to follow her heart rather than her head as Rory awaits being called into action. Time is the thing in The Dig, and Stone wisely lets the film’s clods of excavated dirt work their way through the hourglass as they must, setting aside moments for its characters to pause, feel, and stumble upon the type of epiphanies that only occur when we’re quiet enough to hear them.
Who’s Digging? Fiennes and Mulligan find an immediate chemistry together from the film’s opening moments, though the age difference of the actors make the possibility of romance — loosely hinted at early on — seem unlikely from the start. Luckily, the film doesn’t linger on those possibilities. Though blessed in many ways, both characters have disappointments that they tend to shoulder in quiet. It’s touching then when the two find they can confide in each other about what didn’t work out for them as well as share a belief that what awaits them under centuries of dirt could be the very thing that helps square matters.
Additionally, a young Archie Barnes capably handles the part of Robert, sharing an emotional scene with Fiennes as he works out how to care for his dying mother and turning a final scene at the dig between the three into a bit of lovely magic rather than sloppy sentiment. Flynn and James, likewise, make us believe in what Rory and Peggy have unearthed in each other, James delivering a particularly moving moment when Peggy looks over Rory’s photos from the dig and, through the stills, knows the truth about how each feels for the other.
A Breath of Fresh Air: Stone captures the period well enough, but it’s more of a timeless bucolic charm that wins the day in The Dig. Blame a pandemic that has seen much of the world quarantined indoors for the better part of a year, but never have the dreary climes of the somber, rain-soaked Suffolk countryside felt more desirable. The gloomy palette perfectly matches the tenor of this tale, but it’s the mist in our faces, the smell of damp grass, and the gritty richness of dirt — the kind that gets under the nails and refuses to leave — that makes The Dig at times feel like sweet pastoral contraband.
A Few Mud Clods: Be warned that not all will dig The Dig. Mr. Brown comes from a far different school of archaeology than, say, Indiana Jones — seeking out adventure with a bicycle and shovel rather than a motorcycle and bullwhip. It’s a slow, painstaking film to match the meticulousness of Brown’s labors and at times feels like a cup of tea that’s been allowed to sit a tad too long and needs a zap in the microwave (blasphemous, I know). It can also be counted as a treasure hunt where what goes into the soil emotionally is far more fascinating than the bounty they finally do pull from the ship’s burial chamber. That’s well and good (and as it should be), but rarely during the film do we feel the sense of wonder we should at such a unique discovery in the middle of English farmland.
However, the real knock against The Dig might be that it lacks any real suspense or surprise in its unfolding. Its would-be revelations feel more like confirmations of what we already came to suspect on our own, and while Flynn and James do earn their moments together, it’s disappointing that the more interesting storyline between Brown and Mrs. Pretty — though, not romantic — largely goes abandoned during the second half of the movie. In that sense, it feels like a film that can’t decide which relationship to focus on and, sadly, chooses the less interesting one. While seeing two young souls find one another may be a tried-and-true formula (and for good reason), to see the bond strengthen between the unlikely pairing of Brown and his employer as the dig deepens and all its resulting headaches intensify would have been far more fascinating and unpredictable.
Verdict: Stone uses the Sutton Hoo treasure to tackle a very intimate part of being human: how we grasp and cope with the idea of time. Finding a 90-foot sixth century vessel in one’s backyard would make anyone stop and reconsider the very nature of such things. Does time cease to have meaning in a case like this boat? Is it fleeting, or are we? But, most importantly, The Dig considers how its characters ultimately choose to seize upon the moments they do have and, in doing so, find ways to live on long after their shovels are laid down, their hearts have stopped beating, and photographs have begun to fade with age. A touching film that perhaps spends a bit too much time digging in the wrong places.
Where’s It Playing? The Dig is in select theaters beginning Jan. 15 and will start streaming on Netflix on Jan. 29.