Review by James Mahon
The Dig (Simon Stone, 2021) is a noticeable exception to the increasing trend of repetitious Netflix content. Based upon John Preston’s novel of the same name and inspired by real events, it follows Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), a wealthy widow in Suffolk. She hires self-educated archaeologist Basil Brooks to excavate mounds on her property, leading to the eventual discovery of an Anglo-Saxon burial ship. The film shines a light on Brown, who for many years received little or no credit for his work in discovering the precious artefact, although goes far beyond the simplistic conventions of a biopic.
Occupying the two central roles, Mulligan and Fiennes excel: Fiennes perfectly embodies the unique Suffolk accent along with Brown’s affectations. Whilst criticism has been directed at the casting of Mulligan, who is two decades younger than the real Mrs. Pretty was at the time, her technical dexterity ensures she captures the inner resilience of an ailing mother, an impressive feat considering she replaced Nicole Kidman at short notice. Moira Buffini’s elegant and emotive screenplay provides a vital platform for both actors to engage with their real-life characters.
The first half of the film centres upon Brown’s discovery of the burial ship and his blossoming relationship with Mrs. Pretty, and the wide-sprawling shots of the Suffolk countryside’s subtle beauty contribute to the rhythmic meandering feeling. This is further infused by Archie Barnes as Edith’s son Robert: his initial childlike innocence and paternal friendship with Brown adds to the fundamental sentimentality of the film. Under Stone’s direction a tonal shift occurs, and the obvious foreshadowing of war through RAF planes and radio announcements is delicately interwoven with the overarching storyline. Brown’s work is being encroached upon by professionals from the British Museum, a symbolic commentary on class conflict, and Robert must accept his mother’s imminent death.
The film is a mature and refreshing interpretation of human ingenuity, fear, love, and mortality. Nevertheless, it is not without its faults. There is an element of artificial contrivance in the romance between Peggy Piggot (Lily James) and Rory Lomax (John Flynn) romance, and at times certain scenes seem to be utilised for dramatic effect and disrupt the organic flow of the plot. Ultimately, none of the subplots quite match the unique relationship between Mrs. Pretty and Brown.