The Dig is a gorgeous effort but entirely sidelines the fascinating psychological and emotional terrain implicit to its narrative.
Every niche interest deserves its own movie. By this, I don’t just mean mere on-screen representation, but rather a film or series that really interrogates the heart of the matter. The successful ones communicate to audiences precisely how and why to embrace such specific passions, proving their worth outside of the core fanaticism, and perhaps even adding a little glamour. These peeks behind the curtain into closeted subcultures can spark new interest, as The Queen’s Gambit did for chess, Top Gun did for Navy aviators, and Fight Club did for toxic masculinity. Unfortunately for archaeology, The Dig is not such a movie. Based on the true story of the Sutton Hoo dig and directed by Simon Stone, the film concerns Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) a man deeply passionate about his life’s work of excavation. When he is recruited by Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) to excavate suspected burial mounds on her land, it seems to be the start of something historic. The magnitude of the find — an entire Anglo-Saxon ship buried inland in order to mark a historically significant grave — quickly draws others with varying levels of passion; from the press to hobbyists such as Edith’s cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn), from ambitious local museum curators to somewhat snobbish career archaeologists (Ken Stott, Ben Chaplin, and Lily James), everyone is anxious to see the excavation completed before the oncoming start of World War Two, and to secure the future whereabouts of the unearthed treasures.
Given such an intense backdrop, it’s surprising that The Dig never quite seems to take advantage of its potential. While a film like this is bound to indulge in a classically English stiff upper lip, Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan initially do a good job of laying the foundations for a truly rich, emotionally-rooted exploration of archaeology. There’s admittedly little done to complicate Mulligan’s character, but Fiennes’ understated fervor and terseness capture a very specific type of emotional repression, and the two performances each feel haunted by both the past and the looming future. They allude to unspeakable grief, and their subtlety, despite sometimes being slightly lackluster, is perhaps the film’s greatest strength. Edith and Basil’s shared fascination with archaeology as a means of “digging down to meet the dead” and re-orienting themselves in time has such striking potential, particularly set against the film’s historical context, and does much to establish the stakes of such an endeavor. Both characters have lived through one world war and are living to see another; history, or at least a history that impacts the people on the ground, is repeating itself. Thousands will die, and, just like before, their bodies may not make it home. In this way, The Dig plays with the idea that history feels so present, so inescapable, and that archaeology is a way in which the present can not only discover the past, but the past can communicate to a future it will never get to see. Unfortunately, the film never goes beyond loosely toying with these ideas, leaving anything that could have been compelling or complicated in the first half-hour of the film. Despite never rising above platitudes, The Dig’s considerations of human mortality are often beautiful, but they never feel like anything more than empty words, even given such a fitting and tragic milieu in which to consider such ideas.
Working against Fiennes’ and Mulligan’s subtlety, the film’s second half abandons any attempt at restraint. Lily James and Johnny Flynn, despite providing charming and engaging performances, aren’t enough to save their subplot, and engineering a stale plot twist just to provide James’ character with a morally sound excuse to leave her husband feels tired at best. With extras apparently waiting around every corner (often in the form of kissing couples) to remind us of the oncoming war, The Dig feels clumsy, even in spite of its promising start, leaning into obvious reminders of mortality instead of engaging with the precise complications of that mortality — here, the desperation and tension created by the knowledge that these people will very soon be losing any semblance of control over their lives. At every turn, the story seems to take the path most traveled. Edith commits her existence to caring for the men in her life and is now grappling with both her own impermanence and her desire to finish the work she and her husband had planned before his death; it’s a narrative beat that offers the possibility for a thornier study of her lost intellectual potential, but The Dig is instead content to have her merely worry about her son before her concerns are neatly wrapped up. Fiennes is similarly unchanged by any of the events in the film, and James’ romantic angst ultimately amounts to little more than a mild inconvenience. That sort of torpor extends to the film as a whole: given the phenomenal cast that was assembled and the rich thematic potential, it feels unfair that the result would be so boring. While providing a vivid context for the narrative, The Dig fails to address archaeology on anything more than a surface level, ignoring the fascinating psychological and emotional implications and leaving it to instead simply act as set-dressing for a story that is fundamentally far less impactful than it should be. It’s true that the film is gorgeously done, and, in the end, that’s perhaps what frustrates most: In what could have been a fascinating look into the psychology of interwar Britain and the characters’ resultant personal investments in archaeology, The Dig has ultimately created something as beautiful, lifeless, and full of unexplored possibility as the ship it tells the story of.
You can watch Simon Stone’s The Dig in theaters on January 15 or streaming on Netflix beginning on January 29.