A little mud doesn’t threaten the fine performances in this Sutton Hoo biopic.
“The Dig” is based on the true story about the excavation of the Sutton Hoo burial site in 1939 (just as England is preparing for WWII), in which the archeologist Basil Brown finds an old ship buried underneath the dirt. It stars Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty (1883-1942), the wealthy widow and owner of the site, and Ralph Fiennes as Basil (1888-1977). The movie, directed by Simon Stone (“The Daughter) and based on John Preston’s novel, isn’t always exhilarating in its narrative construction, but it is well-acted and well-intended. Parts of the movie are muddy, but most of it is as clean as a whistle.
Edith had a feeling something was buried on her property, and she was right. This old ship they discover is an Angelo-Saxon burial ship, and Basil and his team put all their best efforts to dig it out. They find gold treasure on the boat, which comes under the deliberation of whether they should be placed in Edith’s hands or the British Museum. The head of the excavation (Ken Stott) believes they should be in the museum, while some believe it should be in her hands. But this movie isn’t about the gold; it’s about accomplishing the digging process, and how the characters change their perspectives.
Subplots have to help support the main premise. Edith finds out she’s terminally ill; Basil gains a connection with Edith’s dreamer son Robert (Archie Barnes) by promising to show him the stars through his telescope, and there’s also a strong attraction between the married archeologist Peggy Preston (Lily James) and Edith’s cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn). Actually in real life, Rory was her nephew, so I don’t know why screenwriter Moira Buffini had to alter that. Peggy comes along with her husband Stuart (Ben Chaplin), but don’t worry, the affair she has with Rory doesn’t end in the most generic way. In fact, it’s presented in an open-minded and peaceful manner.
The best performances in “The Dig” come from Fiennes, James, and Barnes, because they all shake things up within their characters. Fiennes presents a more cockney accent to Basil, and delivers on a flexible and riveting attitude. James brings passion and patience to Peggy. And Barnes is a fine child actor, who doesn’t appear all randomly and sparks a connection with Fiennes.
The trailers and posters make it appear that Edith and Basil are going to hit it off, but he’s already married to May (Monica Dolan) and she’s already got enough stress of her own-what with her illness and all. This is not a love story, aside from the affair; it’s a biopic that puts in a lot of digging effort and radiates with dignity. Obviously, the better Carey Mulligan movie in theaters or on demand this Friday is “Promising Young Woman,” which you know made my list of the Best Films of 2020, but “The Dig” is still another good movie to see in theaters or on Netflix in a few weeks. It all depends on where you are, and if you’re willing to go back to the movies with a mask on.
In Select Theaters This Friday
Streaming on Netflix January 29