The Movie Waffler New Release Review [Netflix] - THE DIG | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [Netflix] - THE DIG

the dig review
A wealthy widow hires a working class excavator to conduct an archaeological dig on her estate.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Simon Stone

Starring: Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James, Johnny Flynn, Ben Chaplin, Ken Stott, Monica Dolan

the dig poster

It's always nice when a role requires a millionaire actor to get their hands dirty and perform some manual labour. Ralph Fiennes earns his ploughman's lunch in director Simon Stone's adaptation of John Preston's 2007 novel The Dig. As real-life archaeologist Basil Brown, he's constantly shovelling, digging and dragging tarp across muddy fields in the middle of battering rainstorms. Even Christian Bale might balk at the level of work required for this part.

Set in 1939, with global conflict looming, The Dig sees the working class Brown hired by wealthy widow Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) to excavate a series of what appear to be burial mounds on the land of her estate. Edith has a "feeling" about one mound in particular, and though it makes no logical sense to his reason-driven mind, Basil goes along with her hunch, leading to an archaeological find that would come to be known as "Britain's Tutankhamun", the discovery of a 6th century Anglo-Saxon ship and its many treasures.

the dig review

The first half of Stone's film is a fascinating character study of an unappreciated man. Basil Brown's work at the Sutton Hoo estate went unacknowledged until well after his death, and Stone and Fiennes appear committed to delivering some restorative justice for Brown. It may be a movie populated by quietly spoken and well-mannered protagonists, but there's a real anger in terms of Brown's treatment at the hands of the snobbish elites of the archaeological world who wish to appropriate his discovery for themselves. As a self-taught man with no letters after his name, Brown struggled to take his rightful place in the world of archaeology, disparaged as a mere "excavator" despite having written books on the subject, along with that of astronomy. What makes this aspect of The Dig all the more effective is how it avoids anachronistic behaviour on the part of Basil and Edith. As a working class man and a woman, they're both well aware of their respective glass ceilings in 1930s Britain, and their quiet resignation to such a raw deal is far more impactful and anger-inducing than any rambunctious social justice storyline might have been.

Unfortunately, this study of class is but one subplot in a film that, much like an archaeological dig, seems to begin with only a vague idea of what it's setting out to uncover and chisels away at various other, far less involving subplots hoping to find treasure within. Mulligan was a late replacement for Nicole Kidman, which is odd given how they're a full generation apart. It seems the original draft may have focussed on a sexual tension between Edith and Basil, as there are still remnants of this idea to be found in the finished product. There's a very out of place five minute sequence where Edith sulks upon learning of Basil's wife, despite their relationship being portrayed as purely platonic for the rest of the film.

the dig review

Out of nowhere, Edith receives a fatal medical diagnosis which turns her into a near cripple despite having been bouncing around prior to that point. The introduction of a subplot concerning Lily James as an archaeologist, Ben Chaplin as her closeted gay husband, and Johnny Flynn as the former's dashing lover derails much of the film's second half, sidelining Fiennes and Mulligan in favour of a storyline that would require a movie of its own to explore in any depth. You get the sense that with no romance between Edith and Basil, the producers insisted on adding some spice to what they likely assumed would otherwise be a dull tale of shovelling. This subplot also raises the issue (recently discussed in regards to Ammonite) of how unseemly it is to speculate on the private lives of real life figures. James and Chaplin are playing Peggy and Stuart Preston, a real life couple who did eventually divorce after 18 years, but there's no documented evidence of the latter's sexuality having anything to do with the matter. If Stuart was heterosexual, as appears to be the case, then this is a cheap manipulation of the facts for the sake of drama. If he was homosexual, then the film's portrayal of him as something of a villain for remaining closeted (it's 1939!!!) while leading his wife on leaves an even more bitter aftertaste.

Just as he can't decide which story to tell, Stone seems torn between two filmmaking styles. For the most part The Dig is a handsome but conventionally mounted piece of British prestige cinema, yet every now and then Stone goes all Terence Malick with swooping handheld shots and editing that will have viewers wondering if the dialogue has gone out of sync. He's no Malick, but with the aid of cinematographer Mike Eley, Stone does capture the beauty of rural England with lots of magic hour filming.

the dig review

But for all the lush fields and pretty young actresses with quivering lips, it's the face of Fiennes that provides The Dig with its greatest visual splendour. The actor buries himself in the part of Basil Brown, a man he clearly has lot of respect for, and you can almost see the decades of soil caked between the creases of a brow that has been furrowed too often for a man of his talent. If an astute fan editor were to excise the pointless subplots that hinder The Dig and focus entirely on the story of a man who has given up expecting acknowledgement and grown to accept his work as its own reward, well, that would be a worthy excavation of its own.

The Dig
 is on Netflix from January 29th.

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