There’s a lot going on in this quiet tale about an archeological dig taking place on the cusp of WWII. That aspect is both its charm and challenge. But even though the result is a bit of a muddle narratively, the characters and story of The Dig remain compelling.
Led by Ralph Fiennes (The White Crow) and Carrie Mulligan (Promising Young Woman), we explore passion, marriage, class, education, gender roles, and life achievements. And that’s just those two. Throw in Johnny Flynn (Emma.), Lily James (Yesterday), and Ben Chapman (1917) and you add in gender norms, sexuality, and the value of joy.
Moira Buffini’s (Byzantium) adaption of John Preston’s novel is sprawling in scope. And director Simon Stone took it on without insisting on a tighter focus. The challenge is that the true story of the Sutton Hoo excavation is itself a wonderful tale on its own. Not necessarily an issue, but because that makes the dig both core story and metaphor to everything else going on, it all begins to become very scattered. If the excavation and the politics over it hadn’t been so towering in the tale, it could have become a quiet mirror to the rest of the subplots comfortably. Instead, the various stories fight for focus. In the end, it sort of unravels as a complete movie even while managing to be satisfying for any individual story.
The acting and production are all quite wonderful. From the bloviating to the quiet despair, the cast manages to deliver. While there is a sort of Merchant Ivory sensibility to it all, it maintains a better energy and sense of tension (well, to my mind anyway). The Dig is interesting history, and also a good set of character studies that make it all worth the effort.