The Dig (Netflix)

If you’re in the mood for a quiet period piece about archeology in Suffolk in the 1930’s, you should give this move a look. I enjoyed it and all of the ways it subverted my expectations. Recommended.

The Dig is a quiet, thoughtful movie.  I was surprised that it is on Netflix, and not on PBS or the BBC.  I would have assumed that a movie like this was made with Masterpiece Theatre in mind, where its subtle charms and disarming nature would be appreciated by a more sensitive and receptive audience.  Not so.  You can find it alongside other Netflix originals such as Extraction, 6 Underground and Bird Box.  Unlike other British-themed films released on Netflix, like Enola Holmes and Rebecca, it succeeds with its less-is-more approach.  If you enjoy reading historical fiction on your easy chair with a cup of tea, or in bed with your cat keeping you company, this movie is definitely for you.

When I say that The Dig is a quiet and thoughtful movie I should clarify that it also has a smattering of action and romance.  Any English period piece is basically required to include both of those elements.   Director Simon Stone delivers on both fronts, but in a way that cleverly tweaks our expectations.  With rare exception, The Dig’s showpiece scenes don’t feature actors delivering lines leaden with emotion and intensity.  Instead, The Dig focuses on scenes with its characters thinking, walking, quietly working, reading and most importantly, observing.  (Trust me, it’s much more engrossing than I’m making it sound.)

At several critical junctures, the movie shows two characters on screen simply being, while their dialog is heard on the soundtrack.  I believe this directorial choice was made to highlight the pensive and internal nature of the characters involved.  All of them are highly intelligent and perceptive.  If I were to hazard a guess, what we see precedes the dialog heard, to emphasize that the characters spent time thinking carefully about what they wanted to say before they said it.  They let their intellect guide them, not their emotions.  Regardless of whether I’m right or wrong here, these scenes, while a bit disarming, help give the movie the quality of a reverie.

Mrs. Pretty and Basil, the movie’s two central characters, definitely make an unlikely pairing.  Their relationship is not built on romance or affection, but curiosity.  Carey Mulligan plays Edith Pretty, a widow and a mother of a young son.  She delayed marrying her future husband for a dozen years while she cared for her father.  After her father died, Edith married her husband, who died a year after their son was born.  Her husband left her a wealthy widow, and she probably wants for nothing.  She Edith has lived with a weak heart since she was a young girl, brought on by a case of pneumatic fever.  Her illness forces her to always take things slowly and reflect on her mortality.  Her concern over what will become of her son when she dies is always on her mind.

Mrs. Pretty has long been interested in the burial mounds on her estate.  When were they made?  Who made them?  Is there anything inside them?  The wealth left to her by her late husband has earned her regular fundraising visits from representatives of the Ipswich Museum.  They tell Mrs. Pretty about the Roman villa they are currently excavating, and she inquires about who is leading the excavation.  This leads her to Basil Brown.

Basil is a quirky character.  He dropped out of school at twelve, choosing self study over formal training.  He learned much of what he knows from his father, who he claims could identify the source of a handful of dirt from anywhere in Suffolk.  He takes pride in what he does, to the point where he refuses to be paid the minimum agricultural wage that Mrs. Pretty offers him, even though that is what he’s being paid by the Ipswich museum.  One look at Mrs. Pretty’s estate tells him that she can afford more, and they are able to agree on two pounds a week, a modest raise from his current rate.  Basil certainly could have insisted on more, given that Mrs. Pretty has money to pay for several servants.  He doesn’t overplay his hand, however.  So long as he is paid more than he is currently being paid, he’s satisfied.  Almost as important, his curiosity is piqued.  He doesn’t want to risk losing the opportunity to discover something noteworthy in the burial mounds.  While he doesn’t expect recognition, he certainly would appreciate it.

As this movie unfolds, it explains that a successful dig (or excavation) requires many things besides careful and deliberate digging.  A historical context of the land where you are digging is very important.  Basil takes obvious pride in his knowledge of the land in Suffolk, knowledge that was passed down to him from his father.  His personal relationship with the land, as well as his own extensive personal study of it, is what eventually yields the discovery of a lifetime.

But first, the site in question (located at the estate of Sutton Hoo) has several mounds.  Which mound do you start with?  Basil initially thinks that thieves would have pilfered the tallest mound and ignored the two smaller mounds nearby, so he starts with one of the smaller mounds.  After an accident, Basil changes his mind.  Based on his knowledge of how the people plowed the land in the area, Basil decides that they should excavate the largest mound instead.  His hunch is that thieves would have mistakenly looked for treasure higher up in the tallest mound, which would have been exposed centuries ago.  As the surrounding land was plowed, the place where the burial chamber was actually located became exposed.  Basil believes that the burial mounds are of Anglo-Saxon origin, a belief that is scoffed at by the lead archaeologist when he arrives, but is forced to admit it when he has physical proof in his hand.  The moment is a triumph for Basil, a solid validation of his skill as an excavator.

As I mentioned above, the Dig playfully subverts our genre expectations along the way.  I expected a romance to develop between Mrs. Pretty and Basil, but that did not come to pass.  (The romantic angle is played out by two minor characters.)  There is chemistry between the two, but it is more of an employer-employee relationship.  Mrs. Pretty is taken with Basil as a self made man, someone who works with his hands.  She sees him as a man of integrity and passion.  His honesty is refreshing, after having to deal with the fawning types from the Ipswich museum on a regular basis.  She defends him from the snobbery of the lead archaeologist, who studied from Cambridge.  Archeology primarily involves study and carefully digging in the dirt.  If Basil had received formal training and certification, he would certainly qualify as an archeologist, and not just an excavator.

As I mentioned above, the romance that does take place in the story is between Peggy Piggott (Lily James) and Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn), Mrs. Pretty’s cousin.  (Peggy and her husband Stuart were summoned from their holiday by the lead archeologist to help with the excavation.)  Over the course of the movie, Peggy figures out that her husband Stuart (Ben Chaplin) is gay.  He is always smiling and gregarious when he’s around a male colleague, but never with her.  Instead, Stuart is reserved and polite to a fault.  He is even embarrassed when he stumbles upon Peggy taking a bath.  (If there ever is a sign that something isn’t quite right between newlyweds, it’s when a husband declines to “seize the opportunity” when it presents itself.)

When Peggy eventually realizes that she is just a “beard”, she initiates an affair with Rory but can’t summon the courage to follow through.  Fortunately, the plot bails Peggy out when Rory returns to the estate one last time more before he leaves for duty.  (I think he came back to get his backpack.  How fortuitous for Peggy!)  Having Peggy and Rory consummate their feelings for each other at the end of the movie definitely satisfies the “sexy loveplay” element required for movies in this genre.  Sure, it would have been more honest for Peggy’s cowardice to have consequences, but this turn of events isn’t the “cheat” it appears to be. Peggy and Rory’s tryst doesn’t carry any emotional weight or have any consequence on the characters involved, though, since it happens just before the movie ends. This movie may subvert expectations, but it still honors them.

The movie does have an action sequence in it, and it happens at the very beginning of the movie.  Basil, Mrs. Pretty, is quickly entombed by dirt from the smaller mound he’s excavated.  Mrs. Pretty and other works on the estate rush over and dig Basil out of the dirt.  After a few tense moments, Basil starts breathing again and we’re back to digging in the dirt.  Raiders of the Lost Ark this movie is clearly not.

Instead of featuring a romantic relationship between Mrs. Pretty and Basil, the movie spends a fair amount of time showing us the relationship between Basil and his wife, May (Monica Dolan).  Instead of being the wife who is cheated upon, Basil and May have a close relationship presumably built over decades.  May writes to him every day when he is at the estate, and when she doesn’t hear back from him, she comes over unannounced.  She notices her unread letters on his desk, to which he says he was saving them over the weekend.  May is a bit upset at Basil’s forgetfulness, but knows that he has a good reason.  (Like most men, when he’s “onto something”, he’s focused on it to the exclusion of everything else.)  Basil clearly loves May, and declines having dinner with Mrs. Pretty so that he can show May what he’s been up to.  The number of movies where a man stands up “the other woman” to spend time with his wife is few and far between.

Ralph Fiennes has always been an excellent actor.  Here he gives a lesson in the technical aspects of acting.  With his workaday Suffolk accent and shuffling gait, he seamlessly transforms into Basil.  Fiennes has had showy roles in the Harry Potter and James Bond films, but his work here is at a much higher level of craft. Its probably been around ten years since Fiennes turned in a performance as nuanced as this one. He plays Basil Brown is as if he’s played him on the stage for years.

Carey Mulligan also delivers a fine, understated performance.  She believably plays someone I thought was much older than she actually is (35).  Her portrait of Mrs. Pretty is a well-rounded one, where she is a mother, employer, head of the estate and supporter of the arts.  Her illness touches on all aspects of her life, but she does her best to not let it cloud her judgement.  Mrs. Pretty reminded me of a candle slowly burning down: gradually getting weaker, but shining as best it can until the end.

Lily James brings life and vitality to the role of Peggy.  She’s presented as a bit of a “plain Jane” here, made up with brown hair and glasses in a futile effort to disguise her natural beauty.  I could easily see another take on this material making her the lead instead of a supporting character.  She does nice work here, although her recent characters have had the worst luck with husbands.  In Rebecca, she dealt with a man haunted by his dead wife.  Here, here marriage is essentially a sham.  Hopefully this is not a trend.

If you’re in the mood for a quiet period piece about archeology in Suffolk in the 1930’s, you should give this move a look.  I enjoyed it and all of the ways it subverted my expectations.  Recommended.

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