At first glance, The Dig is nothing but another English period piece circa World War II, complete with plaid suits, smoking pipes, and foggy, sun-kissed vistas. Slowly, as if time itself were a weapon at director Simon Stone’s disposal, the film reveals itself to you. The Dig tricks you into believing it a plodding bore, and before you know it tears are full bore. Its many treasures are hidden at first, just beneath the surface, only to see the light of day like a book unfolding quietly, patiently. Ralph Fiennes is Basil Brown, an unsung, independent excavator who, thanks to local widow and wealthy property owner Ms. Pretty (Carey Mulligan), discovers underground a monumental historical artifact in a 7th Century Anglo-Saxon ship. Eventually a museum in London gets wind of it and Ms. Pretty’s yard is the talk of the land, give or take a second war with Germany on the horizon. And once Pretty’s dreamy cousin (Johnny Flynn) and a London team of archeologists (Ken Stott, Ben Chaplin, Lily James) enter the fray, there’s debate and sketchy talks about whether Basil will get the credit he so deserves. This is perhaps the “loveliest” film about archeological credit, death, and our tendency to look back in times of hard I can ever recall.
With nicely understated performances and an idyllic English countryside we can fawn over at every turn, Stone has created a most pleasant and occasionally very moving cinematic experience, even if it must be enjoyed at home. Whether you’re a young lass looking for Flynn in each frame, fully invested in his budding romance with a sexually repressed lady (James), or you’re any older and beginning to reckon with the reality of time or the beckoning of death, The Dig is a thematically heavy work that is unexpectedly nimble in its way with you, in its ability to evoke the span of a life with so few words, often soft-spoken by the likes of Fiennes and Mulligan. This might be the first time I’ve been taken with Lily James, an actress who up until now had yet to find her groove. Perhaps evocative romance amid old Britain is just the ticket for such an actress. As for Fiennes, he proves he’s still got more in his pocket than quirky comedy (In Bruges, The Grand Budapest Hotel) and villainous rigor (Harry Potter). Basil Brown is a meek son of farmers with a great mind for soil and Suffolk land, and this is his ticket and he knows it. At middle age he’s learned the long the slog of life is a means to an end, to the memory and name we’ll leave behind for those who may cherish us. When folks say ‘they don’t make ’em like they used to,” The Dig is what they mean to say.
Currently streaming on Netflix