THE DIG (NETFLIX) is a pleasant enough movie, lifted by the outstanding performances of its two principals, Ralph Fiennes and Cary Mulligan, both of whom manage to transform a pedestrian script into something human and worthwhile.
The story, set in 1938 with Britain’s entry into war looming, is that of the remarkable discovery of the Sutton Hoo treasures. This was a precious cache of funerary gold found in the hull of a well preserved, long buried Saxon vessel; it must have been the tomb of an important person, having been dragged overland to this site on the property of Edith Perry, one of the landed gentry. Based on her hunch that there must be something buried under the vast, bulbous midden on her land, Perry hires Basil Brown, a salt of the earth working man descended from a neighbouring family of layman excavators.
It’s a ‘true’ story, so the writers were understandably modest in wringing too many deep insights from the events. This didn’t stop them from dusting the tale with a mish-mash of ideas, as if the reality of excavation was the starting signal to delve into the arty excavations of the human heart.
The thematic links between the fact that Sutton Hoo was a burial site, that Perry was dying and that the war, with its promise of death was about to begin, are suggested, but (mercifully) treated with restraint.
Actor/writer/director Simon Stone leans in more heavily on the idea of the past as just one point in a thread of the tapestry of who ‘we’ are, as a nation and as individuals. To this there is a (be-laboured) perspective that the discovery of the past (and therefore of ourselves) is akin to the wider dimension of discovery …of new worlds, of the future.
But, at its heart, the story squeezes to the fullest the social clash between the untrained working class excavator and the trained, snooty professionals who descend like locusts on the discovery (and who never gave him the credit he deserved). The class snobbery is underlined by the contrast with the genuine connectedness between the working man Brown and his rich employer, Perry. It’s the familiar upstairs/downstairs and quintessentially British divide that’s a must-have for any costume drama.
Add to this a sub-plot of passions unearthed and revealed between two of the excavators (Lily James as Peggy and Johnny Flynn as Rory) and what we’re offered is a thoroughly watchable, good looking, well-crafted, but thoroughly cliched piece of forgettable entertainment.
THE DIG. Dir: Simon Stone. Writers: Moira Buffini (Harlots, Jane Eyre, Tamara Drewe) from the novel by John Preston. With: Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James, Johnny Flynn (Emma, Vanity Fair), Ben Chaplin. Cinematpgrapher: Mile Eley (My Cousin Rachel); Production designer: Maria Djurkovic (Red Sparrow, Gold, The Imitation Game)