Runtime: 1 hour 52 minutes
Director: Simon Stone
Writers: Moira Buffini, John Preston
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James
By Valerie Kalfrin
Years from now, what would someone make of the things we touched and used during our time here? It’s hard not to watch the quiet, contemplative drama “The Dig” and not think of such questions. Framed around the real-life excavation of an Anglo-Saxon royal burial site at Sutton Hoo, “The Dig” on the surface is a historical drama about Suffolk landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), who hires excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to dig up whatever lies beneath the large grassy mounds on her estate. But it’s also about the kinship between these two and a meditation on the fragility of life, how we’re all connected, and what we leave behind.
Widowed soon after the birth of her son, Robert (Archie Barnes), an imaginative boy who makes capes from the household linens, Edith already knows how fleeting life can be. The fatigue and chest pains that she calls heartburn and worry are other reminders. She and her late husband had bought their land with the hope of exploring what was beneath those mounds, but well, “best-laid plans, I guess,” she tells Basil before hiring him.
The opening moments where Basil, self-educated yet intelligent, assesses the soil and what might be found there swiftly establish the respect that he and Edith have for each other. They’re used to being underestimated: he for the formal education that he doesn’t have, and she for the schooling she could have had if her father hadn’t objected. Even so, she’s not just some socialite frittering away her money. Her childhood home was built on a cathedral, she says, and she helped her dad excavate the apse.
“That speaks, don’t it?” Basil agrees.
Adapting John Preston’s novel about these events, screenwriter Moira Buffini (2011’s “Jane Eyre”) and director Simon Stone (2015’s “The Daughter”) craft a story of gentle moments and subtleties. Basil’s work begins in 1939 as England’s war effort ramps up, but “The Dig” (now streaming on Netflix) isn’t an adventure in the vein of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or even “The English Patient,” which cast Fiennes as a handsome explorer in love with a colleague’s wife. Edith does help rescue Basil from a startling cave-in early in the film, but he’s in love with his work, something she and his wife, May (Monica Dolan, “Black Mirror”), understand. History, May notes, matters more than whatever current mess is at hand.
Fiennes (“Holmes & Watson”) is a master of understatement as Brown, who nevertheless can’t contain his excitement when he realizes there’s a 90-foot-long ship within one of the mounds where Edith had “a feeling” to dig. As Edith, Mulligan (“Promising Young Woman”) conveys both delicacy and strength. Tension arrives in the form of Charles Phillips (Ken Stott of “The Hobbit” series) of the British Museum, who thinks these provincial types are too ignorant to be trusted with such a find. That’s just snobbery, Edith says. Her health spurs her to not suffer fools gladly – and her wealth provides her with a voice that Phillips heeds when she advocates for Basil to remain on the job.
The museum official doesn’t show near as much courtesy toward Peggy (Lily James, “Rebecca”), the wife of another digger (Ben Chaplin). She’s an academic, too, but Phillips tells her to get her hands dirty simply because she weighs less than he does and won’t damage the ancient discovery.
With a subplot about Edith’s cousin, Rory (Johnny Flynn of 2020’s “Emma.”), eager to join the Royal Air Force and longing glances between Rory and Peggy, “The Dig” adds a splash of wartime romance. But overall, it’s about the choices we make and how we spend the time we have.
It’s not all for naught, Basil assures Edith during a moment of despair. We’re all part of something continuous, he says. How precious, then, to feel so small yet realize one’s significance.