In which your correspondent recommends, with few reservations, yet another new film on Netflix.
In which, your correspondent recommends, with few reservations, a new film on Netflix.
When I first heard about The Dig, a new Netflix film, I initially anticipated a ghost story, one inspired by the great M. R. James. But The Dig isn’t about ghosts and their shadows but about the light that’s revealed through passionate excavation into human history. It’s a film about those who love history for history’s sake. At its best, and in a quiet way, it also tries to deal with time both in the epic and intimate sense. In this distraught era, it has an air of honest comfort and kindness.
The Dig is from a novel by John Preston, which was, in turn, inspired by a true story. In 1938, with World War II looming, Edith Pretty, a wealthy British landowner, hired an amateur, but highly experienced, archeologist and excavator, Basil Brown, to explore a group of large mysterious burial mounds on her property in Suffolk in Southeast England, a placed called Sutton Hoo (loosely translated from Old English as “South Hill.”). They expected to unearth Viking burial grounds from about the ninth century. Instead, they found themselves off by a couple of centuries as Brown started to uncover artifacts dating back to the seventh century, when Anglo-Saxons lived in the area without, it was thought, leaving much of a legacy. Those times were, after all, the “dark ages.”
But those dark ages turned out to be not very dark after all. Eventually, Brown unearthed an entire ceremonial funeral ship, along with a burial chamber and over two hundred artifacts, including an exquisitely made warrior’s helmet, all determined to belong to an otherwise obscure Anglo-Saxon king named Raedwald. The discovery filled in a blank spot in sixth-century English history, revealing a time very much alive.
The Dig also tries to dig into the hearts and minds of those captivated by history. In this, the film mostly succeeds. It’s blessedly quiet, shot, edited and paced so everyone, including cast and audience, can breathe, even as it risks becoming one of those smooth but sometimes snoozy PBS/BBC productions. Fortunately, director Simon Stone, cinematographer Mike Eley, film editor Jon Harris and the sound team use cinema’s inherent plasticity to keep us engaged, using low-angle shots that frame the characters against the sky to emphasize their smallness in the vastness of time. (As below, so above.) They also edit the dialogue so that it loops in, out and around the drama without ever leaving us confused.
Since it’s based on fact, The Dig should be approached with a bit of a scowl, like all of its kind. It deals with the excavation of historical truth, but Moira Buffini’s script, not surprisingly, is a little loose with it, engaging with the practice of “darkwashing,” where conflict and drama are contrived or exaggerated, regardless of what actually happened (seen, for example, in The Imitation Game from 2014). The Sutton Hoo excavation unfolded with great excitement but without a whole lot of human drama, or even infighting. To compensate, the film weaves in two fully contrived romances, one unfulfilled, one not, and neither convincing nor illuminating. Without them, the film would have been shorter. With them, the film sometimes feels contrived and draggy. As always, fact-based fictions need to be seen solely as an opening to a topic, never ever the final word. (For a look at the facts behind Sutton Hoo, see the excellent site, “Hollywood vs. History.”)
Typical of the British, the performances are impeccable, with Carey Mulligan shining as Edith Pretty. She plays Pretty with a touching delicacy, a woman trembling as she’s caught and dragged into time’s cruel implacable flow.
But, in the end, who can get past the indomitable force that is Ralph Fiennes? The Dig’s true romance lies in Fiennes’ gritty portrait of Basil Brown as a single-minded man wholly in love with his work, his joy at discovery shining through his dirt-caked face, showing even in the simple act of washing his hands after a hard day’s digging. Fiennes has proven again and again to be one of cinema’s best actors and here he finds treasure again.
Thomas Burchfield’s short story “Lucky Day” is in the anthology Berkeley Noir (Akashic Press, May 2020), now available in bookstores everywhere. “Visconti Noir” a look at the surprising film noir of Italian cinematic grandmaster Luchino Visconti is in the November 2020 issue of Noir City e-mag. Another story “What Now, Masked Man?” is in issue #1 of Hello Goodbye Apocalypse. He’s also the author of Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster thriller and the award-winning contemporary vampire novel Dragon’s Ark. His original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil and Dracula: Endless Night are available in e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powell’s Books, and other retailers. His reviews and essays have appeared in Swing Time Magazine, Posthoc.com, Bright Lights Film Journal, The Strand Magazine, and Filmfax. He also posts essays on Medium and his own webpage, A Curious Man. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.