Directed by: Simon Stone
Premise: Set in the English countryside just before the outbreak of World War II, a landowner (Carey Mulligan) commissions a self-taught archaeologist (Ralph Fiennes) to excavate the large burial mounds on her property. They uncover a find of great historical significance.
What Works: The Dig is a period piece that contrasts the smallness and finiteness our own lives with the larger context of history, culture, and time. Without clobbering the audience over the head, The Dig makes pointed connections between the lives of these characters, the particular moment in history when the story takes place, and the implications of a significant archeological find. The outbreak of World War II is imminent, placing these people on the cusp of an era-defining event but to them it’s just the present moment. The characters of this story cope with mortality and legacy and the film effectively and thoughtfully contrasts the transience of our own existence with the larger legacy of civilization; the contributions of individuals are largely forgotten but the civilization in which they participated lives on, even if just as a museum exhibit. The Dig is a fascinating film to contemplate and the themes of the story are embedded in the other aspects of the filmmaking. The Dig is well photographed and it has a grimy and organic look that suits the setting and the subject matter. The landscape figures importantly to the movie; the backgrounds give a sense of time and scope with characters dwarfed against the fields and faraway hills. The performances are terrific and also in touch with the story’s themes. Carey Mulligan plays the landowner who oversees the excavation. She’s terminally ill and Mulligan’s character is aware of her mortality. Ralph Fiennes plays Basil, the amateur archeologist who initially leads the excavation and struggles to get credit for his work. Aside from their individual stories, there is also a matter of personal connection. These people offer each other companionship. That human warmth contrasts with the rest of the film and offers a living interpersonal counterpoint to the entombed excavation.
What Doesn’t: The stakes of the story are low. The filmmakers succeed in creating drama but much of it is interpersonal. The senior academic (Ken Stott) who takes charge of the excavation is condescending and threatens to dismiss Basil and his crew. There are some romantic tensions, especially between characters played by Lilly James and Johnny Flynn, but this is largely underplayed. The low stakes work for the tone of the movie. The Dig is a nuanced movie about the smallness of individual lives against the broad scope of time and the film’s restrained approach is appropriate. But The Dig doesn’t have the big melodramatic moments that viewers may be accustomed to getting from a historical film.
DVD extras: Currently available on Netflix.
Bottom Line: The Dig is not an ostentatious film but it is very well made and the story is thought-provoking. It’s a straightforward narrative with forthright characters that nevertheless taps into something mysterious and even profound about the nature of existence.
Episode: #865 (August 22, 2021)