Tuesday 2 August 2022

Movie Review: The Dig (2021)

An archeological drama, The Dig ignores historical relevance in favour of bland side stories.

The setting is 1939 in Suffolk, England. War against Germany appears to be a certainty when widowed landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) hires unconventional archeological digger Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to excavate mysterious mounds on her estate. Brown has no formal training but a lifetime of hands-on experience. He gets to work, and bonds with Edith's young son Robert. Edith also recruits her cousin Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn) to help.

Brown soon makes a stunning discovery: he uncovers a ship from the Anglo-Saxon era, with a burial chamber containing treasure. Officials from the British Museum led by Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) arrive, declaring the discovery of national importance and sidelining Brown. Stuart Piggott (Ben Chaplin) and his wife Peggy (Lily James) are among the professional archeologists brought in to work the site. All is not well in the Piggott marriage, and Peggy is soon attracted to Rory.

The true story of the discoveries at Sutton Hoo deserve cinematic treatment, but The Dig wastes a good opportunity. Writer Moira Buffini deems the artefacts of minimal interest, and barely invests any time explaining the history, relevance, or science. Instead, the narrative is quickly distracted by dreary tidbits: Edith's illness, Robert's obsession with comics and astronomy, huffy museum types attempting to derail the dig, and the snobbery of elitist professionals dismissing Brown's contribution.

With Buffini and director Simon Stone demonstrating no confidence in the ability of the actual subject matter to command interest, the second half is comprehensively derailed by a tepid love affair between Peggy as the bored wife of an archeologist (her husband Charles is presented as gay) and Rory as the cousin of the land owner. Two tertiary characters, barely relevant to the story, are allowed to subsume one of Britain's most important archeological discoveries. 

Mike Eley's rural cinematography is evocatively drenched in countryside browns, and the background snippets of a country slipping into a world war are effective in conveying a time and place. Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes are suitably restrained, but The Dig is nevertheless mired in its own tripe.

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