The Dig movie review: Carey Mulligan stars in an outright gem that needs to be unearthed from the depths of Netflix
- The Dig movie review: Featuring Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes in fine form, the new Netflix period drama is phenomenal.
Director - Simon Stone
Cast - Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James, Johnny Flynn
The Dig, on Netflix, is one of the most radical-minded films in recent memory. Everything about it — from its unconventional structure, the oblique characters, to the experimental camerawork — goes against our understanding of what movies like this are, and what they should be. And yet, on the surface, it’s a stoic period piece — perhaps the most tradition-bound of all film genres.
A little more than a decade ago, director Michael Mann rewrote the language of period dramas with his Depression-era crime film, Public Enemies. Over several years, we’d become accustomed to watching historical epics that were shot, scored, and structured in a very familiar manner. And then, along came Mann, who with his handheld digital cameras created an unexpected dissonance in the minds of audiences — we’d never seen Johnny Depp’s moustache in 2K.
Watch the Dig trailer here
Interestingly, Carey Mulligan had a tiny part in Public Enemies, which came out just a few months before her breakout film, An Education. 2021 feels like Mulligan’s year, and it’s just January. She delivered the performance to beat at the Oscars in Promising Young Woman, and she plays a similarly fatalistic character in The Dig.
As a performer, Mulligan has always been mature beyond her years. But in The Dig, she’s required to play someone who’s physically older, too. The landowning widow Edith Pretty was in her 50s at the time of the Sutton Hoo excavation, the historical event that director Simon Stone dramatises in his gorgeous film.
With death knocking at her door, Edith hired a local excavator named Basil Brown to tackle the several burial mounds at her sprawling Suffolk estate in 1939 — an archaeological expedition that soon attracted the interest of a nation at the brink of war. Brown, played in The Dig by a brilliant Ralph Fiennes, was somewhat of an unheralded figure in British history; his contributions to archaeology going largely uncredited until recently, probably due to his class.
In a moving scene midway through the film, he opens up to the university educated Edith that he left school at the age of 12. But having observed his craft, and indeed, his artistry, Edith realises that Basil Brown is a bit of a savant. Every evening, after a day of hard, manual labour at the dig site, Brown retreats to his room, where he studies everything from geology to Latin. He has also, Edith learns, written a book on astronomy.
For instance, he correctly predicts that the site could be Anglo-Saxon, rather than the more common Viking. But when representatives of the British Museum commandeer the dig site, sensing the importance of Brown’s discoveries, they relegate him to the sidelines, believing him to be out of his depth.
A similar theme was explored in the recent Netflix documentary, Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb, which followed a group of Egyptian archaeologists as they descend upon a particularly rich piece of land at the Saqqara necropolis. It was in this film that I learned about the men who do the actual digging. They spend hours, sometimes days, shovelling sand under the hot sun. And inevitably, after they unearth an artefact, hordes of infinitely more educated archaeologists swoop in to make the final brush strokes, and pose before the international press. The contributions of these diggers, who are all formidably knowledgeable about the land that they are excavating and have been in this business for generations, are ignored.
The Dig is a deceptive film. And it’s quite astonishing how expansive its themes are, considering its rather restricted scale. As Edith oversees the exhumation of the past, the looming threat of a great war, fought with machines of the future, lingers in the air. Romance blossoms in the mud.
We’re all familiar with the talents of Mulligan and Fiennes. There’s such melancholy to their performances in this film, as their characters, in uncovering mysteries from the past, find themselves buried under the burden of living meaningful lives in the present.
But the collective artistic voice of three behind-the-scenes figures stands out most resoundingly in The Dig. I will be observing the careers of director Stone, cinematographer Mike Eley, and composer Stefan Gregory closely. But as impossible as it is to ignore the film’s stunning Malickian visuals, and the classical quality of the score, it’s the editing that rarely calls attention to itself. Scrape away the topsoil and you’ll notice immaculate jump cuts, and clever flash-forwards.
The Dig is a grand old film, unafraid to disinter distressing ideas; and unflinchingly idealistic despite not having any reason to be.
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The author tweets @RohanNaahar