On the eve of World War II, a self-taught archaeologist was hired by a local woman to excavate her land. She thought it might contain Viking remnants. But what was unearthed in the ground was more significant than she could have imagined: Buried in the ground was a ship that lay 89-feet-wide and 35-feet-tall, filled with graves and bodies and jewels from the early Anglo-Saxon period. Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes team up for this real-life discovery in “The Dig,” with a script by director Simon Stone and Maori Buffini, inspired by the events chronicled in John Preston’s book of the same name. The story isn’t as exciting as some other archaeology adventures—there are no ghosts, demons, or mummies—but if you dig past the layers of slow, sleepily paced melodrama, you might uncover a few gems along the way.
This is especially true in “The Dig’s” opening segment, set in an enormous country estate on the hottest of summer days in the England of 1939, a country doing its best to avoid the realization that it is on the verge of war. Planes circle the countryside like crows, but everyone in the small town of Sutton Hoo has their sights set on tea and crumpets, poetry and nature, peace and quiet. The widowed landowner, Edith Pretty (Mulligan), is curious about a mound of dirt on her property.
The man she chooses for the job is Basil Brown (Fiennes), an excavator for a local museum. He is undoubtedly a brilliant archaeologist and an expert in his region, taught by two generations of his own family. Still, his lack of education means he isn’t taken seriously by his colleagues, who call him “unorthodox and untrained.” Who knew you needed a Bachelor’s degree to dig holes?
He still connects with Edith, however, and starts to work with some of her servants. Gradually, his discovery—that Edith’s estate is a burial ground from the 15th century—is laid out. The film adds a host of subplots and characters, including Edith’s cousin, Rory (Johnny Flynn), who has enlisted in the air force, and newlywed archaeologists Stuart (Ben Chaplin) and Peggy (Lily James), all of whom roll up their sleeves to join the project.
This small but potentially monumental excavation serves as a framing device for conversations about the futility of man, as both the ancient ship and the coming war remind us that history is long and life is short. The filmmakers use all sorts of flourishes to spice up their nothing lasts forever message—from the fleeting romances to the spellbinding montages—yet it still comes off dull, uncinematic, like so many “based on a true story” films.
The character beats are predictable and perfunctory, and though the story is wrapped in a novel idea, it’s rather a snooze. What keeps “The Dig” from caving in completely is Mulligan’s performance as the fragile, yet determined Edith. She and Fiennes have an ease together on screen, but the amount of hanging around their characters do is truly surprising.
What’s rather unexpected is how slow and spineless their adventure is, and “The Dig” emphasizes their undertaking’s gradual nature. As they dig deeper and deeper, their journey becomes closer and closer to something along the lines of “Days of Heaven.” Some of the handheld, Terrence Malick-style compositions are elegant, the camera floating toward and away from the characters as if guided by a gust of wind, but after a while, it’s just a lot of sitting in fields.
“The Dig” details an interesting corner of archaeology and Dark Ages history, but the story is laden with meaningless scenes. Although the actors are a joy to watch (as always), honestly, Edith and Basil’s real-life story just isn’t that cinematic, and the film never makes their discovery feel like our own. [C-]
“The Dig” is available now on Netflix.