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The Dig

John Preston has proved that he has a knack for turning headline-making Twentieth Century events into novels with enough popular appeal to attract prestigious filmmakers. Preston's A Very British Scandal, about a disgraced member of Parliament; became a popular 3-episode binger starring Hugh Grant. It's still available for streaming at Anazon and my review can be read here.

In The Dig, the sensational event that triggered Preston's imagination was a famous archeological discovery on a riverside farm in Suffolk. Though archeology is hardly a topic likely to have huge audience appeal, Preston turned it into a fascinating genre-crossing literary adventure story. Both the 283-page 2007 novel and the 2-hour 2021 film adaptation scripted by Moira Buffini and directed by Simon Stone — now streaming at Netflix — are vividly detailed and packed with interesting subtext.

The focus in both book and film is on what became known as the Sutton Hoo Dig. However, the storytelling is enriched by the fictitious exploration of relationships, ambitions, and issues of identity pertaining to the various characters who were present during the three months it took to unearth a large ship and its treasures from one of the farm's mounds. The most complex relationship is that between Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), the farm's owner and Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), the astute but home-trained excavator whose only paid employment has been by the small local museum.

Simon Stone, whose work I've had the pleasure of seeing on stage — most recently the brilliant Yerma at the Park Avenue Armory — makes the most of a film's ability to capture the story's gorgeous setting. He's ably supported by Mike Eley's cinematography and Alice Babidge's costumes.

Seeing Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes up close enough to see into their eyes, as is only possible with films, would make The Dig worthwhile seeing even if it were a less visually beautiful and finely nuanced production. Both actors have been seen and reviewed on stage by me or one of my Curtainup backups. In Mulligan's case this is the second time I've reviewed her in a movie available for streamed viewing. Thus, her range is now doubly in evidence. In An Education at Amazon she portrayed a teenager. In The Dig she is equally at home as the middle-aged widow who follows her hunch that there's something worth digging up on her land by hiring Fiennes's plainspoken, local archeologist.

The process of digging for historic artifacts is a slow, arduous process, but somehow the film is imbued with an air of excitement as soon as Mrs. Pretty and Brown negotiate their working arrangement and wander the land to decide on which of its numerous mounds is most likely to yield something. That excitement builds with the realization that something quite special lies underneath the chosen mound.

Like any good adventure story, there's a harrowing disasterr. It befalls the unassuming excavator-hero and alters his boss's feelings for him (I can't think of a subtler treatment of a lonely woman's feelings than the brief detour inside Mrs. Pretty's home and heart).

While the confirmation of Mrs. Pretty's hunch does not come as a surprise-- watching Brown finally reveal it is nevertheless exciting. Once word gets out about the uniqueness of the treasure, the basically solo digging venture turns Mrs. Pretty's quiet farm into its own treasure hunting site for local and large city museums. The museum big guns arrive to lay claim to house the treasure and be credited for its discovery. Since Mrs. Pretty becomes increasingly ill during the long hot summer it's likely that she'll end up giving in to the museum bigwigs.

But this being fictionalized history don't count on a big happy ending. On the other hand, do count on the writers, director and actors to manage a less obvious either-or finale. As they let that whiff of something more than mutual respect and friendship between Pretty and Brown morph into a quite touching paternal relationship between Brown and Pretty's young son Robert (Archie Barnes), so they do manage to make the film's finale both satisfying and sad, true to the facts, but not totally.

There is one somewhat more clunky additional subplot involving Peggy and Stuart Piggott (Lily James, who readers may know best from her appearance in Downton Abbey, and veteran stage actor Ben Chaplin). Both are able and ambitious archeologists but their already troubled marriage is not helped by Peggy's being shut out from the all male archeologists at the dig. A romance with Mrs. Pretty's nephew Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn) isn't exactly a well-integrated #MeToo way to deal with her personal and professional frustrations.

Not to be overlooked is the story's time frame. The events at the Pretty farm coincide with preparations for World War II, which will result in many more burials. And watching the film at a painfully critical moment in our own lives makes The Dig something of a meditation on the need to recognize life's transience and take heart from Basil Brown's view of his excavation: "From the first human handprint on a cave wall, we're part of something continuous. So we don't really die."

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The Dig
Film adaptation by Moira Buffini of novel by John Preston
Directed by Simon Stone

Cast: Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty, Johnny Flynn as Rory Lomax, Ben Chaplin as Stuart Piggott, Ken Stott as Charles Philips, Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown. Lily James as Peggy Piggott, Archie Barnes as Robert Pretty, Monica Dolan as May Brown.

Music by Stefan Gregory
Cinematography by Mike Eley
Film Editing by Jon Harris
Production Design by Maria Djurkovic
Costume Design by Alice Babidge
Running Time: 2 hour and 52 minutes
Available for streamed viewing at Netflix
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer