The 400-Word Review: The Dig
By Sean Collier
January 31, 2021
Occasionally, “The Dig” plays with time in ways so subtle you might not notice them. The dialogue for a scene will continue while the shot jumps ahead to a shot where the characters do not speak. Someone will exit one door and enter another too quickly, as if having been transported.
Before any of these flourishes, Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), the owner of a remote English estate containing several ancient burial mounds, reflects on an anecdote about British archeologist Howard Carter. As he was about to enter King Tut’s tomb, she explains, he noticed fingerprints of millennia-old workmen on the walls — a detail that made time lose its meaning.
That may be the key to unlocking “The Dig,” a moving and lovely period drama, the merits of which are more than the sum of its parts. There’s some temporal magic here, enough to make potentially dry subject matter — the unearthing of those mounds, and a struggle over the credit and ownership of their treasures — captivating.
A hundred similar films prompt little but drowsiness among festival audiences; I wasn’t expecting “The Dig” to enthrall me. I was pleasantly surprised.
Pretty is a authentic historical figure whose flair for archeology was nestled in the otherwise depressing final years of her life; her husband died of stomach cancer in 1930, eight years before Pretty’s own premature death at 59. In those final years, she contracted Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), a local excavator — not an archeologist, he clarifies — to unearth whatever lies on her property.
Brown, also based on a real figure, bonds with Pretty’s young son (Archie Barnes) and steams when representatives of the British museum take control of the proceedings. “The Dig” loses a bit of its verve at this point, introducing a string of secondary characters who crowd in like the movie is an overstuffed elevator. Lily James comports herself well as a young archeologist with a bad marriage, superfluous though the character is.
Director Simon Stone pours a great deal of soul into “The Dig,” though I’m inclined to save the laurels for cinematographer Mike Eley. He’s responsible for a hundred breathtaking shots of the English countryside at sunset; those images, more than anything, may explain my admiration for the film. Such is the nature of indefinably lovely films. It could be deliberate and immensely subtle touches of filmmaking; it could also be pretty landscapes.
My Rating: 8/10
“The Dig” is streaming on Netflix.