English journalist, television critic, and author John Preston’s 2007 historical novel “The Dig” was a reimagining of the 1939 excavation at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, England. It’s the site of two early medieval burial grounds, one of which contained a mostly undisturbed Anglo-Saxon ship along with numerous artifacts and treasures fit for a king’s burial. Preston built his own drama around the discovery but for the most part kept his focus on the amazing find.
Netflix’s upcoming film adaptation of Preston’s book comes from Australian director Simon Stone, written by screenwriter and playwright Moira Buffini. The movie adds even more dramatic layers (some more effective than others) while still trying to do justice to the Sutton Hoo excavation. It also brings together an intriguing cast of stellar English talent including Carrie Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, and Lily James. I was instantly onboard.
The film’s first half is magical, both narratively and cinematically with Stone capturing the awe, wonder, and mystery of such a magnificent discovery. Through his story and his camera, Stone introduces us to his characters and builds our anticipation for what waits to be unearthed. There’s an almost Malickian beauty to how cinematographer Mike Eley shoots these early scenes. The fluidity of his camera movements, the striking angles, the way nature is admired through his lens – its absolutely gorgeous filmmaking.
The story gets off on a similarly impressive foot. Mulligan plays Edith Pretty, a widow who owns the estate where the burial grounds lay. Mulligan breathes elegance into her character, but there is also an unmistakable sadness that Edith works to hide from her precocious young son Robert (Archie Barnes). It’s this sadness and grief that drives her interest in what lies underneath the ancient mounds on her property. So she hires a local excavator Basil Brown (Fiennes) to handle the dig. He’s an odd but capable sort – a kind man who has buried sorrows of his own.
Unfortunately the story loses some of its zest in the second half when the head of the British Museum (Ken Stott) arrives with his entourage. This leads to wrangling between museums, each trying to convince Edith that they are better suited to house something of such cultural and historical value. This also introduces Peggy (Lily James), a young archaeologist whose cold and indifferent husband clearly has eyes for another. It’s yet another good performance from James who sadly ends up with a character trapped in the more unimaginative machinations of the plot. This ultimately leads to an undercooked and completely telegraphed romance that feels more convenient than natural.
Strangely even the camerawork is more subdued in the second half, losing much of its artful style and creativity. It still looks good but hardly as eye-popping as in the earlier scenes. While the shift in focus isn’t nearly as absorbing, Stone keeps his audience attached through the performances and with some thoughtful subtext about the coming war. Airplanes overhead, a passing truck full of soldiers, brief audio from a radio broadcast – it all points to what’s boiling on the world stage. And those subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) reminders bring an alluring stillness to the film as the characters (and the audience) grasp the significance of their archeological discovery while slowly facing the reality that their nation is about to be thrust into war.
It’s hard to put into words both the love and frustration I have for “The Dig”. I was enraptured by the first 45 minutes or so – caught up in it’s mystery, its beauty, the period detail, and sweeping visuals. I loved Stefan Gregory’s graceful score which oscillates between vibrant piano chords and more soulful aching strings. And I loved Mulligan and Fiennes, both their characters and their performances. But the movie loses its footing once the fiction begins overshadowing the facts and it dives into a much less interesting and lesser developed side-story. As it is, I quite like “The Dig” even as I find myself longing for what it could have been. “The Dig” premieres January 29th on Netflix.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS
I just saw this on a list of Netflix releases and thought it sounded pretty interesting. It’s a shame the second half doesn’t live up to the first, but it still seems like a decent watch.
It’s worth watching for sure. But it’s one of those case where it could have been unforgettable. I guess I’m concentrating too much on the negative.
I’ve been looking forward to this one so much! Even with a diminished second half I will be doing it. Sutton Hoo is amazing!
Definitely watch it. There is enough I enjoyed about it to make it easy to recommend.
I heard about the movie on the Detectorists fb page. I really enjoyed the Detectorists series and will be checking this movie out.
It was one I was soooo looking forward to. Be sure to let me know what you think.
Wiggletastic review Keith 💙💛💜❤️
Thank you…I think.
I did hear about this film as I saw an interview with Ralph Fiennes on Mark Kermode this past Friday talking about the film. He seemed to enjoy the work he did as he was relaxed and having a good time talking about the film with a radiator behind him. I’m waiting for him to do another Wes Anderson film.
Fiennes is so good. And I would 100% be behind another Fiennes/Anderson collaboration!
Too bad the wheels seem to come off the wagon in the back half, but this really has me interested. Despite what seems like quite dry material. It’s another case of the cast winning me over.
Well worth watching in my opinion. And who knows maybe you’ll respond to the second half “romance” better than I did. But there are still plenty of things I like about the movie which makes it easy for me to recommend.
I watched it tonight, it did unfortunately lose some focus in the second half. The Ralph Fiennes character, who you think is the main character, just disappears for a while at the start of the second hour of the film and then new characters and new stories are brought in, so yes, as you say, a little frustrating. I mostly liked it, should have been better though.
Exactly. I liked it but you can’t help but think it could have been better.