‘The Dig’: Archaeological Drama Excavates Hidden Emotions as WWII Approaches

Netflix’s “The Dig” is a richly mounted drama based on hesitancy. Its emotions are pushed beneath the surface, even as its characters dig into the soil to get in touch with the past. It is this sense of restraint that also gives the movie an evocative tension. Director Simon Stone is working from a novel by John Preston, which is based on a true exploit by autodidact archaeologist Basil Brown (played by Ralph Fiennes), who makes a great discovery in land owned by wealthy widow Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan). Like a growing cloud World War II approaches, and the dig begins to take on some subtle yet powerful emotional resonances. 

“I was just impressed by it when it turned up in my inbox. It’s rare to have a script that works like a page-turner and even rarer when it can be about a relatively ‘dry’ subject matter like archaeology,” Stone told Entertainment Voice when discussing the making of “The Dig.” The narrative is set in rural England in 1939, where Pretty is convinced her lands are worth excavating. She hires Brown, who charges two pounds a week and brings not fancy degrees, but his own self-taught expertise. As he begins excavating, Brown builds a respectful bond with Pretty and her young son, Robert (Archie Barnes). His work soon results in what could be a stunning find. An ancient ship emerges from the soil, and Brown suspects it’s of Anglo-Saxon origin. Not only that, the ship could contain the burial chamber of a Saxon king. Soon British Museum archaeologist Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) arrives, all pompous and greedy for recognition. “I couldn’t stop caring for what happened to the characters next,” said Stone. “It was dangerous that we could become coy, clichéd or even patriotic. But there are some deeply resonant topics that could speak to the world we’re living in right now.”

Stone does film “The Dig” in that now defining tradition of British period dramas where high emotions are expressed through majestic visuals. The work of cinematographer Mike Eley and composer Stefan Gregory take on a unique importance. Because this is a story devoid of loud melodrama, the ambiance of the wide fields and cold rooms where the story is set convey the loneliness of Pretty and Brown. She is without a partner and he is so devoted to his work that his wife can only shrug when he admits he hasn’t read her letters. The discovery of the ancient vessel casts a distant spell, reminding everyone that who they are now may wither away with the passage of time. All that will be left are memories. “This is a philosophical response to the subject, which is almost has this Saxon king been sent through time to the ‘30s to be discovered just as they head towards another cataclysmic war? We had to find a style that makes it feel like it’s constantly moving,” said Stone. “I was inspired by directors whose work focuses on human beings and their connection to their social endeavors and communal efforts.” 

Everyone in this story is forced by convention and the social pecking order to hold back. Pretty might feel an emotional attraction to Brown but it is shared only through the affection of glances and support. Besides, Brown has his own wife, who seems devoted enough, even if money is low. She visits him once at the dig site then disappears to a city life of waiting for him to return. The dig site then becomes a silent arena of feelings. Brown and Phillips are aware they must race against history itself to uncover the ship and its treasures, since everyone knows war is coming soon. Phillips brings with him a team that includes a couple, Stuart (Ben Chaplin) and his wife Peggy (Lily James). Theirs is also a relationship based on suppressed desire. Stuart seems uneasy around his own wife in private, practically pushing her away when she wants to be intimate. When she locks eyes with Pretty’s cousin, the rugged Rory (Johnny Flynn), there is attraction, but unspoken. All their energy is channeled into the excavation of the ship.

Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan again display their versatility and capacity to play on subtly. “The Dig” casts these two greats and yet teases the idea of attraction between them, establishing it along more mature terms as a bond that begins forming out of sheer respect. When Phillips tries to take control of the dig Pretty refuses to betray her loyalty to Brown. It’s almost more endearing than a kiss. “I met Ralph a couple of years ago at the Berlin Film Festival and were both inspired by each other’s ways of looking at the character. Carey came in at the last minute. We had an actress dropout a couple of weeks before we were scheduled to start. It was extraordinary to get probably the best actress that could have played that role was such a blessing,” said Stone. “The two of them are astonishing to watch work, the generosity with which they open themselves and share their souls onscreen. Ralph’s commitment to creating the character was to not leave character during the whole shoot. He was even signing his emails with ‘Basil.’ When we were talking on the phone on the way home from set he would talk with Basil’s voice. I would laugh and he would say, ‘why are you laughing?’”

“The Dig” has the microcosmic allure of lives living a moment in a specific corner of the world as greater events threaten to unfold. As the archaeologists begin to uncover gold objects from an ancient time in the ship, overhead bomber planes pass by, as if preparing for the conflict brewing in every news broadcast in the pubs and living room radios. Stone achieves an almost semi-mythic quality. Pretty and Brown are watching their world slowly shift, and soon be a part of history like the ship. Maybe some audiences will want more flair from this story, but Stone achieves a sophisticated effect, as if we’re watching an old memory. “We’re creating a piece of mythology for our times. William Shakespeare did the same thing. He was interested in the poetry he could create out of real figures.” said the director. “It’s about what it is to live in a time of crisis and the community spirit that transcends our differences. The layers of this story all speak to each other. I’m a big believer in creating mythology as quickly as possible out of the great stories of our time.”

The Dig” releases Jan. 15 in select cities and begins streaming Jan. 29 on Netflix.