The Dig


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Dig
"Strong leading performances and a handful of beautifully crafted scenes sit sit by side with much clunkier and more derivative material."

People have been interested in trying to uncover the secrets of their ancestors for thousands of years, but curiously, the Western world only started to take archaeology seriously as a profession in the late 1800s. In the early 1900s, it was a huge craze. A zeal for exploration had let to treasures being discovered in all sorts of unexpected places. Few of these, however, would come anywhere close to the discoveries made at Sutton Hoo in 1938, when a curious landowner employed a working class man with an impressive reputation to investigate old mounds, resulting in one of the finest preserved examples of an Anglo-Saxon ship burial.

In this dramatisation of events, based on John Preston's historical novel, the landowner, Mrs Pretty, is played by Carey Mulligan, some two decades younger than her character but clearly relishing the different opportunities this offers her, whilst Ralph Fiennes steps in to play the discoverer, Basil Brown. Under the shadow of the impending Second World War, the dig is complicated by men of higher standing anxious to take over ever detail of the operation on behalf of the state, and by more personal matters, as Mrs Pretty struggles with illness and her young son Robert (Archie Barnes), who has already lost his father, tries to come to terms with the fact that he may lose her too.

At a time when everybody was acutely aware of their mortality - a theme which finds some resonance in the pandemic era of the film's release - digging into the past has particular meaning, with Brown, who forms a strong bond with the boy, discoursing on his feeling that we are all part of something continuous. At times this theme - particularly in the way it's scored - gets a bit bombastic and nationalistic, but this is balanced by a climate of cynicism and uncertainty about the war, and by our protagonists' wariness of London folk who are quick to talk about the nation's interests whilst heavily focused on their own.

The real Basil Brown went unremembered for a long time because of his class, and this film strives to give him his due, showing him and Mrs. pretty bonding over the fact that both had academic potential which they were unable to realise. There's that slightly awkward feeling about it all that arises when a film is so heavily slated towards an upper class or upper middle class perspective that it seems to be looking rather paternalistically at its novelty poor person, but Fiennes does his character justice. Young Robert's enthusiasm for space exploration brings this rather staid country world into contact with modernity.

Period dramas never expect to keep their audiences happy without a dash of romance, and this film finds it between married but frustrated archaeologist Peggy (Lily James, her insecurity and academic inclinations signalled by an unflattering pair of glasses) and Mrs Pretty's cousin Rory (Johnny Lomax), whose trajectory is clear from the moment we learn that he's a pilot. Peggy's scenes with her husband are very heavy handed, injecting a style of comedy that doesn't quite fit with the rest of the film, and whilst the actors do their best, the handling of the romance is distinctly twee. In the latter part of the film, t also distracts from the more interesting relationships between Mrs Pretty, Basil and the boy.

The Sutton Hoo find is a great subject and details of the unearthing are brought to life very effectively, with a dangerous incident early on keeping viewers alert to the risks throughout, but overall this film feels like a missed opportunity. Strong leading performances and a handful of beautifully crafted scenes sit sit by side with much clunkier and more derivative material. Not everything retrieved from the past is worth making fuss about, and any archaeologist will tell you that there are some relics we already have in profusion. The Dig really needed to work harder to clean away the mud and let its treasure shine.

Reviewed on: 10 Mar 2021
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The Dig packshot
An archaeologist embarks on the historically important excavation of Sutton Hoo in 1938.

Director: Simon Stone

Writer: Moira Buffini, based on the book by John Preston

Starring: Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James, Archie Barnes, Ben Chaplin, Johnny Flynn

Year: 2021

Runtime: 112 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: UK


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