Based on John Preston’s 2007 novel – which imagines the story behind the 1939 Sutton Hoo excavation of a Saxon ship – The Dig is a stab at the British heritage film genre from Australian director Simon Stone. While it has conviction, however, it rarely prompts any intrigue. It’s an intimate narrative between Edith Pretty (Cary Mulligan), the wealthy archeological hobbyist, and Ralph Fiennes as the earthy Suffolk excavation expert Basil Brown. Mike Eley’s cinematography pushes lens flare to the absolute limit. One imagines this was shot quickly and cheaply, with wide angles enhancing the scope of the landscape and its stars’ faces. While they fight internal battles over individual liberty, property and history, World War II looms on the horizon.
Along with the similar snore-bore biopic Ammonite – a hushed lesbian drama from last year – and the present-tense prose of Wolf Hall, there is a marked tendency in the British cinema to dig into our past to assess the here and now. Openly, The Dig situates itself as commenting on today’s encroaching fascism in the UK, hiding behind the historical certainty of WWII to do so. Supporting characters – like Monica Dolan’s worried wife persona – deliver speeches about the importance of family and fear of conflict, while sentimental strings pour syrup over the scene.
When the archeological dig gets into full swing, Stone introduces a broad group of characters working at the site. Most notably, this begins a romantic subplot between a leather-jacketed Johnny Flynn and an undersexed Lily James. The latter is a housewife whose bumbling husband (played by Ben Chaplin) fails to see how repressed the British are. Mulligan’s kind-hearted performance is limited to her on-screen disability and quiet fortitude telegraphed through cut-and-paste dialogue. The lackadaisical pacing, cast of recognisable faces and second-hand conflict have a Sunday teatime approach that isn’t entirely off-putting. But ultimately, The Dig is the kind of film you forget even while you’re watching it.
The Dig is released digitally on demand on 29th January 2021.
Watch the trailer for The Dig here: