It’s always great to see homegrown filmmakers breaking on to the world stage. Aussie actor-come-director Simon Stone follows up his 2015 film The Daughter with Netflix release The Dig, a true historical drama about the 1939 excavation of Sutton Ho.
When Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) enlists the services of a highly regarded, albeit self-taught, excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), to unearth several large burial mounds on her property, she sets in motion a dig of monumental proportions that alter the course of known Anglo Saxon history. Before long, several major museums gain interest and the site is taken over by a snobbish archaeologist from Cambridge (played by Ken Scott).
This very basic premise ought to make for an enthralling journey of discovery and historical importance, and within the confines of the dig itself it is, indeed, an engaging story. Both Fiennes and Mulligan present carefully measured performances and make good use of their screen time. They are, unfortunately, relegated from lead characters to side players when the script subverts their story with an odd exploration of taboo social standards of the time, as well as diversity.
Precisely what I refer to will remain for you to discover, as not to spoil what some must consider to be an important direction for the film to adopt. Suffice to say that The Dig ultimately falls victim to its own moral posturing when it puts Basil Brown’s humility in the back seat in order to service some kind of misguided grandstanding.
Lily James and Ben Chaplin play a married couple assisting the Cambridge team, both of whom provide a dominating subplot that hijacks Brown’s story. While James and Chaplin are great actors whose performances here never come into question, the nature of their relationship cannot be substantiated in any historical context, bringing into question why writer Moira Suffini felt so compelled to re-write their story with innuendo and speculation. Furthermore, a brief search online will reveal their part in this story (and the greater story of archaeology) to be far more significant as is depicted here, and therefore the creative licensing from Suffini and Stone seems to be awfully disrespectful.
The story is set against the backdrop of England declaring was on Germany, and the period and impending threat is well handled. That “chin up” attitude of the Brits is woven throughout the story and with random broadcasts informing the film’s alignment with the war, the overall production and period seems to be concise.
Needless to say, the better components of the story are incredibly compelling. The platonic relationship between Basil Brown and Edith Pretty is captivating, and were it not for the distraction of sub-plotting, their story arc would be much more endearing to viewers. The rising tension between them and the museum institutes might also have been all the more palpable. So, I reiterate: It’s a disservice to the audience that some fact has been turned into fiction where it needn’t be.
Often creative licenses service stories well, however in this instance where the entire story is well documented and easily accessed by all, it is disappointing to be fed so much speculation for the sake of diversity. Sure, it’s important that we progress as a society, but re-writing history and the nature of people is not how it should be done. And here lies my point: Wasn’t this movie supposed to be about a dig, or something?
‘The Dig’ is now streaming on Netflix – right HERE.