Directed by Simon Stone
Written by Moira Buffini
Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) lives in the English countryside in Suffolk just before the outbreak of World War II. Her land features a number of mysterious mounds, which have caused speculation for years. Edith hires Basil Brown (Ralph Finnes), an excavator to begin unearthing these mounds to see if historic treasures and artifacts lie underneath. When an old boat is found, news spreads quickly and the British Museum in London sends their chief archeologist (Ken Stott) to take over the site, but Pretty insists on Mr. Brown’s continued involvement. Soon her cousin (Johnny Flynn) arrives to help prior deploying to the RAF. Peggy (Lily James) and Stuart Piggott (Ben Chaplin) are young experts who also join the dig. Disagreements and subtle spats arise between the many hands involved in the dig, creating an interesting dynamic, a push/pull between the desires of Pretty, Brown, and everybody else. There is love, tragedy, passion and history all intertwined in the beautiful, sweeping countryside.
One of my entry points into cinema as a young man was Raiders of the Lost Ark. It was a fun, adventurous story about an archeologist. I also hold a college degree in History. I have always been fascinated by history and the work to unearth it and document it. And while The Dig is not an action/adventure movie (sorry if you thought it was), it’s a period piece about an archeological dig, unearthing an ancient boat in the middle of an English field, so by all accounts, this should be a movie that piques my interest, especially when you consider it stars Carey Mulligan, who was recently phenomenal in Promising Young Woman and could very well garner an Oscar nomination this year for that role, Ralph Finnes, and Lily James. On top of all of this, the cinematography is truly beautiful, evoking Terrence Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki. All of this combines to make a movie that should be an absolute shoe-in to being a favorite. And yet, it’s not. The film is lacking in many areas which takes all of these positives which make it pretty, and very watchable on the outside, but empty and somewhat slow and insignificant on the inside.
The performances are good across the board. But the real star here I thought was the photography. Sweeping landscapes, interesting camera movements and framing choices, and excessive use of magic hour to create incredible imagery. I am a sucker for beautifully captured films, and it easily buoys the film for its runtime, keeping my attention frame to frame. But ultimately the film feels empty to me. The cinematography doesn’t add to the experience of the narrative, which is overly laconic and subtle. If there was depth here, it was well hidden underneath the veneer of the finished product. Edith Pretty’s condition and the story of his lost husband are never really discussed. Her relationship with her son is never given depth. The most interesting element to the story is the relationship between Peggy and her husband. It seems as though Peggy’s experience is the most interesting storyline, but we don’t get her presence until midway through the film, and even then, as with the other elements, it’s treated very lightly.
Because this was based on a novel, I am willing to bet there is much more depth there. And while I am sure the filmmakers intent was to communicate their story in a subtle manner, it feels too subtle to be effective for my tastes. I don’t need to be knocked over the head, I appreciate subtle, but The Dig ends up feeling incomplete. It feels as though there is an epic love story, or even a fascinating 10 part series in the lives of these characters, their relationships with each other and what the unearthing of the Sutton Hoo meant to them in their world. But we don’t get that in this film. There are just almost too many characters to get around to, and the film even fails to give it’s main character their due depth. Beautiful to look at, and I loved letting it wash over me, but the narrative, emotions and feelings of the characters didn’t wash over me along with the visuals, leaving a gorgeous, but ultimately empty viewing experience. Perhaps repeat viewings would itself unearth unfound depth, but then again, perhaps not.