‘The Dig’ review: wartime archaeology romance gets stuck in the mud

There's a great film to be unearthed from John Preston's 2007 novel, but this isn't it

Archaeological films are having a moment. During October’s London Film Festival, we watched Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan swooning over old fossils in Ammonite, and now we’ve got Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes swooning over old boats in The Dig – another beautifully shot metaphor for the way we bury our true feelings, and another reminder that Indiana Jones made digging up history look far cooler than it actually is.

Indie director Simon Stone adapts John Preston’s novel with far more delicacy than it can stand – giving us a subtle, gentle film that gets waterlogged when the book’s annoying side plot starts dragging it down. Watch the first half of The Dig and it’s hard not to fall in love with Basil Brown (Fiennes) and Edith Pretty (Mulligan) – two characters who desperately need each other without ever really knowing why – but the second act leaves you wondering if it was all worth the effort.

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Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown in ‘The Dig’. Credit: Netflix

Pretty is a rich widow with an unnamed illness and a Suffolk estate full of mysterious burial mounds. Brown is a simple man who knows his mud. When Pretty hires him as a labourer to dig down and see what’s buried under the ground, neither of them expect to find the famed Sutton Hoo Saxon treasure that became one of the most important discoveries of the century. As the war planes of 1939 start rumbling overhead, history comes calling – along with all the hangers on from the Ipswich museum, Pretty’s young ward (Johnny Flynn), and a young archaeology student (Lily James) who seems desperate to turn a delicate little period piece into a predictable melodrama about a bland love affair.

When The Dig follows Pretty and Brown’s story, there’s plenty to admire. From Fiennes disappearing behind a mumbly Suffolk farm accent, to Mulligan making the most of a wonderfully underwritten backstory, Stone lets the first act play out with sleepy Sunday charm, shooting the golden-brown East Anglian landscape with a beautiful eye for cinema. Both leads are at their best working with subtleties, and there’s real treasure to be found in the finer, unspoken details of two characters who slow-build a friendship without really realising it – she using a muddy ditch to avoid talking about her illness, and he using it to hide an oddly cold relationship with his wife.

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Johnny Flynn follows up his divisive David Bowie biopic with a role in ‘The Dig’. Credit: Netflix

The problems start when Lily James shows up. Trapped in a sexless marriage with her bookish husband, James’ Peggy Preston gets drawn to Flynn’s hot young photographer and starts gawping at him over all the wet Saxon bones. Of course the war starts and of course Flynn gets called up, giving The Dig an excuse to head down the Hallmark route, ending up pretty much exactly where you expect if you’ve ever read a romance book with an illustrated cover. Everything subtle suddenly seems overwrought, and the second half feels like a completely different film, leaving Pretty and Brown stuck somewhere in the mud before they finally get remembered again as an afterthought. There’s a great little film to be found in The Dig, but it’s buried under a much soggier one.

Details

  • Director: Simon Stone
  • Starring: Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James
  • Release date: January 29 (Netflix)
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