Simon Stone steers as the helmsman of this project to adapt for the screen a novel by the same name, which is a proper slow burn of a movie only for those with the acquired taste. The Dig is a true adaptation of John Preston’s 2007 novel also entitled The Dig which tells the real-life story of how the legendary Anglo-Saxon burial ship, Sutton Hoo was discovered. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Carey Mulligan, and Lily James, we follow all of their individual journeys as they work in tandem bringing to light this historical vessel with performances across the board that are nothing shy of wonderful. An overall strong screenplay by Moira Buffini shows the intricacies and complexities of the entire situation from nearly every angle that at times, does lose its focus causing side stories to overshadow the main plot. The Dig will certainly not be a film for everyone as many may find the subject matter to be plain dull, but it is without question a well-crafted film from opening to closing that will leave you satisfied.
Set at the dawn of the Second World War in 1939, The Dig centers around Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) whose land she believes is ripe with treasure just waiting to be found. Given the position she finds herself in, Pretty hires excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) on a recommendation, and he along with a few assistants from the estate work hand in hand to dig into the mounds of Pretty’s land to uncover what lies beneath. Following the discovery of a couple of iron rivets that once belonged to a sea vessel, Brown informs Pretty and word of the finding slowly begins to trickle out. Once the news of the site goes public, an excavation team formed by Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) comes forth and begins assisting on the project with hopes that Pretty will sell the ship to the British Museum for all to see. Along the way, outside forces such as investors and buyers all do their best to persuade Pretty’s decision making as she suffers from a worsening medical condition which leads to personal strife, Naturally, their collective quest winds up revealing much about every single person who is present doing their part to unearth the Sutton Hoo leading to friction, but ultimately understanding as everyone soon finds their personal peace.
The highest mark that can be awarded to The Dig would come in the form of its characters and performances. Every individual character that is introduced throughout the film has a place in the narrative that allows no two characters to serve the same function or feel the same as the next. Although the focus of the film is on a small handful of characters, everyone is given development into their stories which makes them far more believable while giving credence to their motivations from start to finish. All of the details feel purposeful and nothing appeared to be left on the table, so for that, I must give praise to Buffini’s exceptional character writing. However, characters and dialogue are only as good as the person bringing them to life. All of the main performers deliver good work that will keep you captivated as they navigate from scene to scene. Ralph Fiennes manages to do a lot with a little as his stoic assuredness bleeds through every word he speaks. Carey Mulligan’s tumultuous emotions ebb and flow as she battles with internal and external difficulties all while bringing a deep passion to the screen. Lily James’ personal conflict feels fully realized with every moment as she shines in a role that feels utterly soothing. And young star, Archie Barnes delivers a moving performance that will have you experiencing every emotion as he steals nearly every scene he is in. All around, The Dig is a triumph in character, from both the written word to the dedicated performers, not an ounce of talent feels wasted on either side of the camera.
The major issues I detected while watching The Dig, came in the form of its pacing and plot. The film has a fairly straight forward story that everyone can understand, but it simply fails to make any of it interesting. Nearly every revelation presented within the film happens seemingly out of thin air with little to no build-up. A series of moments will transpire until something is revealed to the audience but it never feels earned because no gradual development is made, thus making things feel meaningless when you should be feeling elated. On top of that, there are at least two moments throughout the film where a character is turning their back and stepping away from it all, but because a new incentive is placed forth, they return to their duty. On its own, this technique is fine, but when done multiple times for the sake of adding extra scenes of dialogue, it feels terribly pointless. However, the biggest gripe I have with The Dig stems directly from its overall narrative. We are immediately introduced to a small handful of characters from its opening moments who all share a common goal. Then, halfway through the film, a bevy of new characters are introduced with their own stories that are so far removed from the main narrative leading to a shift in what we should and should not care about. When James’ character Peggy Piggott was injected into the script I was skeptical at first. However, as her story unfolded, I naturally grew to care for her struggle and subsequent growth more than I ever did with Pretty and Brown’s dig. Being far more interested in a romantic side story of a character and the backdrop of the war than the actual excavation is not a good sign. Unfortunately, The Dig has all of the necessary components from dynamic characters to an interesting setting in England just before the birth of the Second World War, but none of it can save the dreadfully dull plot.
Simon Stone’s The Dig is a film that essentially suffers from a lack of genuine consistency. Buffini’s expert screenplay brings Preston’s original novel to life through great dialogue, and even greater characters. Every performer gives it their all even if what is being presented is nothing all that engaging. Stone’s work behind the camera is fantastic with wide-reaching landscape shots that paint the beauty of the natural world to tracking shots that absorb you into its scenes effortlessly. Tragically, the general story that is being told is one that fails to “wow” in any way and it also falls short of connecting the audience to its struggles leaving a significant taste of disappointment in one’s mouth. Luckily, the entire film does not drastically suffer because of the flat plot. Yet, I must reiterate, The Dig will not be a film that everyone will enjoy. From its slow pace to droning moments of silence, it can at times have you checking your watch and looking elsewhere. In spite of that, The Dig is a film worth watching full of riveting characters that carry it from start to finish in an excellent fashion.