One of the few entertainment outlets not to have their 2020 output disrupted by the pandemic, Netflix looks to continue their dominance in 2021 by releasing at least one new movie every week, with 71 titles already scheduled and a few more festival pickups likely on the way. While these will run the gamut of genres and include some blockbuster-esque event films, this week’s contribution, The Dig, is better suited for people looking to slow things down. It’s a quiet, solid period drama with an impressive cast and some interesting visual ideas, and though it lacks staying power, there’s comfort in spending a couple of hours falling in with its steady stride.
Adapted from the novel of the same name by John Preston, which in turn dramatized a true story, director Simon Stone’s The Dig focuses on the 1939 excavation of the Sutton Hoo mounds in Suffolk, England that proved to be one of British archeology’s greatest discoveries. Originating as the pet project of the landowner, Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), the effort is led by self-taught local Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), who is often dismissed by the archeological community for his lack of credentials and low-class background. When the find’s significance attracts national attention, Basil’s involvement in the project is threatened, and Edith’s failing health causes her to worry for her son’s future as Britain stands on the precipice of another war.
Rather than trying to artificially inject a ton of pathos, Stone’s film commits to a restrained, understated approach, and the actors benefit from this the most. Fiennes and Mulligan are two excellent, nuanced performers who relish the opportunity to build character through gesture, communicating depth of personality while remaining within their society’s constraints on behavior. The movie’s momentum also encourages focus on the cleverly thematic camerawork, interested in using a person’s relationship to space (often Basil’s smallness in nature and Mulligan’s confinement indoors) to question humanity’s place in history. The decision to sometimes have conversations play out in voiceover as the actors merely glance at each other, in a movie where unearthed objects are said to “speak,” is particularly striking.
That said, The Dig struggles to connect in any lasting way, partly because the film’s tone is not accompanied by more pensiveness. It questions the value of this expedition in the face of the coming conflict, yes, but not hard enough to believe the viewer requires any real convincing, let alone the characters undertaking it. Stone could’ve stayed inside the self-contained, personal importance it had to Basil and Edith or widened the scope to explore the larger context, but trying to pursue both leaves the audience with too little to invest in. If you find yourself particularly moved by The Dig, it will be because Fiennes and Mulligan provided enough of a hook to help you share in their characters’ moments of triumph and heartbreak. The movie itself, while good, is otherwise likely to fade from memory.
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