In The Dig, a fictionalised real-life account adapted from a novel, Ralph Fiennes plays Basil Brown, a local excavator with a love for astronomy, who has a reserved outer shell. Replying when spoken to, Basil is a warm-hearted, unflinchingly loyal man of few words who is a genius excavator; his modesty doesn’t allow him to say he’s an archeologist.

The real Basil had a mind for academics: he held diplomas with distinction for astronomy, geography and geology through correspondence courses; he had left school at the age of 12 to assist his father who was a tenant farmer (ie a farmer who resides on a landlord’s property).

We, however, don’t see that back story, but the gist of it is everywhere in Fiennes’ excellent, nuanced performance. Here’s an actor who, given the right script, takes over the screen: he did it in The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Constant Gardener, The End of the Affair and Schindler’s List.

It is, then, a moment of giddy excitement when Carey Mulligan gives Fiennes a good run for his money, as a widow landowner in pre-World War II Suffolk, England. Mulligan plays Edith Pretty, whose husband died young and who has a young boy brimming with imagination.

Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan are brilliant in The Dig which stands out also for its cinematography and editing

Edith and Basil don’t fall in love or have an affair — that bit is reserved for the other characters we’ll be talking about in a minute. They share something far more valuable: mutual respect.

Edith hires Basil to dig up the giant mounds she inherited on the land. Her gut tells her that there’s something historic and valuable underneath — and lo and behold, there were: the archaeological site is recorded in history as the excavation of Sutton Hoo, where a medieval Anglo-Saxon burial ship was dug up. The site revealed facts previously unknown to history, such as the make of the currency at the time, amidst other ready-to-crumble artefacts.

So, in the film, whose title makes all the sense in the world, there is a lot of digging, and an avalanche. As in the days of old, when technology was limited to the wireless (aka the radio), there isn’t a lot to do. The villains of the tales are the meek people from the British Museum who want to take ownership of the site since it’s technically an archeological find. They’re not really bad people.

In the middle of the film, the story suddenly adds a lot of supporting actors. Lilly James (Rebecca, Darkest Hour) plays Peggy Piggott, another famous archeologist who, in the scope of this story, is just starting out in the field. Even though her husband, Stuart Piggott, seems like a good guy to hang around with, and he genuinely cares for his wife, there is no spark in their relationship.

The likely story happens: she falls for someone other than her husband, while England announces war with the Germans. The only signs of death and grief are the few Royal Air Force (RAF) planes flying high in the sky in formation.

Like the characters and the story, we ponder about the looming war and its repercussions as the screenplay by Moira Buffini (Jane Eyre, Tamara Drew) wanders here and there in the uber-artistic vision of director Simon Stone, cinematographer Mike Eley (Nanny McPhee Returns, Touching the Void) and editor Jon Harris (127 Hours, The Woman in Black, Kingsman). Both Stone and Eley are ones to look out for; Harris is already a known name.

The Dig’s cinematography is award-worthy, as is its time-jumpy edit style. Scenes happen with overlaid dialogues but characters don’t speak until a few jump cuts later. The camera often films actors from the point of view of a person walking behind them. The movement and wobble of the camera feels organic, as if real steps were taken by someone; they do not exhibit the usual shoulder-mounted shakes. We cut here there, everywhere, but somehow it all makes perfect, wonderful sense … for those who can sit through a film that’s primarily about digging.

Streaming now on Netflix, The Dig is rated appropriate for teenagers of 16+. It has mature themes and some brief scenes of sensuality.

Published in Dawn, ICON, February 21st, 2021

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