‘The Dig’ movie review: Ralph Feinnes shines in beautifully meditative period drama

A lovely movie about a shining thread of humanity binding the past, present and future, this drama is worth every moment you spend with it

Ralph Feinnes in a World War II drama? You had me at Ralph Feinnes, never mind his nostril-less avatar as the Dark Lord or his stuffy three-piece suit version of M. His haunted eyes as Count Laszlo de Almásy in The English Patient (1996), talking of the hollow of Katherine’s (Kristin Scott Thomas) neck, are seared into our consciousness.

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Twenty-five years later, Fiennes plays Basil Brown, a self-taught excavator-archaeologist in this beautifully meditative film. The year is 1939 and Edith Pretty, a landowner in Suffolk, hires Brown to excavate the burial mounds in her estate. With the war coming, the Ipswich museum, that regularly employs Brown, wants him to help with the digging of a Roman villa, which they deem more important than Edith’s excavation. Brown is convinced the mounds have Anglo-Saxon remains and not the more common Viking ones. However, as he left school at the age of 12, the more formally educated archaeologists tend to look down on Brown’s theories.

When a ship is discovered with iron rivets indicating an important person, probably a king, was buried in it, the British Museum takes over the excavation. There is hurry in the air as the radio squawks terse reports of the gathering storm clouds of war and young people get ready to lose their life to it.

The Dig

  • Director: Simon Stone
  • Cast: Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James, Johnny Flynn, Ben Chaplin, Ken Stott, Archie Barnes, Monica Dolan
  • Duration: 112 minutes
  • Storyline: The story of the excavation at Sutton Hoo with some dramatic license

Based on John Preston’s eponymous novel, The Dig is beautifully shot and acted. While Fiennes is solid as the quietly competent Brown, Carey Mulligan is brittle and formidable as Edith. She battles her weak heart and the dicey future with the same unyielding strength as when she stands up to the British Museum’s Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) demanding Brown’s work be acknowledged.

Lily James as Peggy Piggott who comes with her husband, Stuart (Ben Chaplin), to help with the excavation is breathy as ever, the over-sized glasses notwithstanding. Incidentally, archaeologists are quite miffed with how Peggy has been presented. She was a renowned archaeologist at the time and not the greenhorn as shown in the film.

The site photographer, Rory (Johnny Flynn), is also a dramatic license, shoe-horned in as a love interest for Peggy. However, it is the other loves that strikes pure and true. There is Edith’s quiet grieving at her husband’s grave. There is also the one between Brown and his wife, May (Monica Dolan), her daily letters to him, his asking her whether she will stay the night and her giving him the time to say goodbye to the “old girl,” the ship. The relationship between Edith’s son, Robert, (Archie Barnes) and Brown, as he teaches the young boy to reach for the stars even while looking reality in the face, is equally touching.

A lovely movie about a shining thread of humanity binding the past, present and future, The Dig is worth every moment you spend with it.

The Dig is currently streaming on Netflix



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