There are certain films that proudly declare themselves British, not through accents or by waving the Union Jack but by evoking a certain feel, sweeping through with such grandiosity and delicately measured emotion that they evoke the essence of the British film tradition. I suppose many countries have these trademarks, but few put it on with such pride as the Brits, or with (occasionally) such folly.
The Dig is one of those proper British films, dredging up the surprising people behind the landmark excavation of the Sutton Hoo site for a tale of everyday excellence that may get misplaced but never forgotten, or so its rosy version of history would have you believe.
The formality of this brand of film makes them difficult to take at face value, their framework so easily identifiable that it also leaves the artifice bare. You can set your watch to its beats knowing that, in the end, Britain will get it right. Such propaganda certainly exists in other country’s cinema (as an American I have no room to criticize shoving excellence down people’s throats), but it does become trite awfully fast, a pitfall that The Dig can’t seem to avoid.
Director Simon Stone and screenwriter Moira Buffini clearly understood the limitations of the genre they were working in, so they either grafted onto or retained from the book of the same name on which this is based several extras for audiences to latch onto. There’s the requisite romance (which might be part of the formula, but it’s almost always a welcome one), a lowkey feminist fight, and most prominently and most effectively an examination of the slipperiness of history itself.
This is, after all, an attempt to correct the record. It brings to the fore the role of Basil Brown, here played by Ralph Fiennes, the self-taught archeologist who began the excavation and was pushed aside once its significance was discovered. Also being placed in a glowing light is property owner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), who the movie frames as a quiet, stalwart supporter of Brown, and the site’s relevance even as World War II envelops everything around them.
To its credit, the film never overplays this theme. Suggested instead by the cinematography, with its tendency to place characters in windswept fields and to keep the edges of the frame fuzzy, one feels the details around these characters blurring, the focus only ever on their own little goings-on. In a strange way, this evokes our own focus, our tendency to be myopic about our times and to lose sight of both the past and the future. The lonely tragedy of such an existence is cleverly mined by Feinnes and Mulligan, whose characters have their reasons for keeping the past in mind even if they can’t articulate them directly because of repressed Britishness.
Then there’s the inescapable fact that everything we’re watching is history now, the sumptuous period trappings being, for once, something you aren’t supposed to get lost in. History can bring about its own existential crises, the inevitable of us all becoming a part of it being quite sharp when you imagine the past as lives and not just events. The Dig wants to evoke that mood, and it almost does, but like all of its best elements, it becomes a case of almost but not quite getting there.
The Trappings Don’t Make the Movie
Having grand ideas behind your movie is always great, but it’s important that the film doesn’t lose sight of its basic functions. A swift plot, compelling characters, something to keep the audience firmly in their seat. That’s where The Dig goes astray, failing to find anything that will keep people from reaching for their phones.
Excavation isn’t a particularly cinematic activity, and neither is the foregone conclusion of events. We know they’ll find an Anglo-Saxon ship, which is great, but it’s not exactly a rip-roaring event. Still, there are proven ways to work around these limitations: swell the music, hang on a moment, manipulate us. Filmmaking gives you all sorts of tools to draw emotion and suspense out of even the most rote stories, but Stone seems reticent to use them. The only thing that almost becomes compelling is the romance between a relative of Pretty played by Johnny Flynn and an archeologist played by Lily James, but it’s a plotline too buried within the morass of the film to grab your attention.
This reticence to indulge in is an odd decision, particularly since stories of repressed Britishness have so often paired well with sweeping, manufactured emotion. Their big moments reveal what these reserved individuals would otherwise keep bottled up inside, but Stone makes the deadly mistake of replicating this repression in his filmmaking, continuously hinting at dramatic events but never giving us the big payoff.
That lends the film a monotonous feel, one that I imagine is not unlike the meticulous work of excavation. But most people aren’t wired to be that patient, a particularly fatal flaw considering most will watch this in their homes since it’s produced and distributed by Netflix. How many will start this and get pulled away by kids or housework and never feel compelled to return to Basil Brown, Edith Pretty, and Sutton Hoo? I’m guessing quite a few. And how many will fall asleep for a chunk of the proceedings? Probably even more.
Conclusion: The Dig
The Dig finds a good old tale of British excellence but never quite brings it to life. Its trappings are all cozy and its cinematography lush enough to catch your eye, but its characters flounder in a plot that never lets them do much of anything. The film instead grubs around, hinting at things that would make it worthwhile. But with no real payoff, the story is a discovery that would’ve been best left in the ground until more capable hands could bring it into the light.
The Dig will be released worldwide on Netflix on January 29th, 2021.
Do you think that The Dig lived up to its historical and cinematic roots? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Watch The Dig
Does content like this matter to you?
Become a Member and support film journalism. Unlock access to all of Film Inquiry`s great articles. Join a community of like-minded readers who are passionate about cinema – get access to our private members Network, give back to independent filmmakers, and more.