Movie Review: Ralph Fiennes hunts for buried treasure in Netflix’s ‘The Dig’

Movie Review: Ralph Fiennes hunts for buried treasure in Netflix’s ‘The Dig’

Above, the remnants of an Anglo-Saxon ship burial from the 6th century are unearthed in a scene from the film.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Perhaps it is odd to explain a film as methodically heartfelt, but that best describes The Dig. Based on the 2007 novel by John Preston and the true story of the 1939 excavation of Sutton Hoo (outside of Woodbridge, in Suffolk, England), the film explores the personalities involved with the undertaking and the quest for the truth. It also addresses both the purist of and the validity of credit.

With a lifelong interest in archeology, widow Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) hires local Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to excavate the burial mounds on her estate. Brown, self-taught and self-effacing, first rejects the position because of the amount of money offered — the same small fee that the Ipswich Museum had paid him. It is less about small sums and more about the value that he sees in the work. She immediately relents, raising the salary by 12% to two pounds a week.

Carey Mulligan in a scene from The Dig.

What follows is a painstaking project that leads to an extraordinary discovery. Given Brown’s lack of formal education — he left school at twelve — his initial claims that the mounds are Anglo-Saxon and not Viking are easily dismissed. His uncovering proof of his supposition results in outside interest, first from the Ipswich Museum and then the British Museum. Throughout, Brown is praised for his work and then pushed aside. 

His true champion is Pretty, dealing with a heart-related illness and caring for her son, Robert (Archie Barnes). The young boy is fascinated by the dig but caught up in the skies above. He is obsessed with both the Royal Air Force (RAF) fighter pilots training nearby and a world of fantasy in the stars. 

Like the work they have undertaken, the film is focused but with a rich and rewarding purpose. Brown digs with shovel and pick and spade; he covers the area in tarps when it rains. He jots in his notebook. Pretty reads of archaeology in her library. Robert plays. It is a film of landscapes, sunrises and sunsets, and slow and purposeful work done with great care as the British nation prepares for war.

Soldiers gather on the roads as the planes become more frequent. The looming war drives an immediacy to finish, but the process and progress cannot be rushed. It is all measured, but it is grounded in the breathing of the world. 

One of the most interesting moments comes when a small shift in the soil buries Brown. His two helpers and the manor staff, along with Pretty, claw in the mud and dirt to get him out. It is a perfect synthesis of tension and cooperation as they resurrect him from a burial site.

A scene from ‘The Dig’

Once it is clear that the unearthed treasures are significant, the battle is over control of the site. Pretty is reluctant to turn it over and brings in her cousin, the untrained Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn). Lomax’s introduction provides a sliver of romance to the story, as he becomes involved with Peggy Piggott (Lily James), the wife of archaeologist Stuart Piggott (Ben Chaplin). The Piggotts, both respected in their field, are caught in a repressed and possibly sexless marriage. It is a diversion from the main plot that only finds its strength when Lomax is called-up for service

The journey relies on a strong cast and Mike Eley’s lush cinematography. Stefan Gregory’s beautifully melancholy score elegantly punctuates the highs and lows. It soars appropriately but, for the most part, remains as a subtle heartbeat in the background of the action.

Mulligan is luminous is Mrs. Pretty. Both gentle and tightly wound, she bears her pain with great dignity, all for love for her son. Another actor would most likely fall into a maudlin caricature; Mulligan is real, sad, but not without humor. It is a delicate, thoughtful performance, an extraordinary contrast with her bolder, edgier, and dynamically impressive work in the recent Promising Young Woman. 

Fiennes is equally gentle, his simplicity masking a more enigmatic individual. At fifty-eight, there is no trace of his breakout performance as Amon Göth, the Nazi monster of Schindler’s List. His Brown is all softness, bringing deep honesty to a man frayed around the edges but whose center is strong. Mulligan and Fiennes don’t so much spark as join as a single flame. 

Johnny Flynn and Lily James in a scene from the film.

Lily James turns in a small, subtle performance. Unlike her vivacious Lady Rose of Downton Abbey or her energetic Cinderella, this is a delicate, introspective performance. She wears her pain and hope hidden behind large spectacles. 

Monica Dolan is strong as Brown’s supportive and shrewd wife. At first, she comes across as vague and disconnected, but she has a true understanding of who her husband is and, even more importantly, his potential. Flynn’s Lomax is likable but a bit of a cipher. As the British Museum’s Charles Phillips, Ken Stott skirts the blustery; he brings a touch of humanity and wonderment to the final breakthroughs. 

The Dig is not Howard Carter and the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. (And those looking for Brendan Fraser in The Mummy should seek elsewhere.) It is not grand discoveries that make headlines. Director Simon Stone and screenwriter Moira Buffini have worked seamlessly to tell an intimate story that shows how a small discovery can make a big difference, both to the individuals and the world. In the end, The Dig’s moral is not about who finds the answers but that the answers are found.   

Rated PG-13, The Dig is currently streaming on Netflix.

All photos courtesy of Netflix