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The Dig

****
2021

‘…this well-acted, carefully constructed film is a pleasant, crowd-pleasing, word-of-mouth surprise…’

Can you dig it? By it, of course, I mean the famous excavation at Sutton Hoo, the discovery of a complete ship, dragged from the river and used as a burial site, complete with a secret chamber full of Anglo-Saxon treasures? Can you dig that? Why, yes, you can! So, sit back and enjoy this lengthy but enjoyable film from the serious side of Netflix, which features all-star cast in a specifically British outing into stiff upper-lips and hidden reserves of pluck and steely determination amongst the filth. Based on a book by John Preston, Simon Stone’s film has a better sense of period and time than most, and somehow makes something absorbing from people shovelling dirt around a pre-WWII field.

The field in question belongs to Ms Pretty (Carey Mulligan in a very different mode to Promising Young Woman). She’s a widower with a young son and an undiagnosed health issue; a quick reading montage establishes that she’s got a kindred spirit in Basil Brown, who fancies a shot at excavating her burial mounds. Played by Ralph Fiennes beneath a fresh frosting of dirt, Brown is arguable the active protagonist here. His view of the world as ‘continuous’ provides plenty of opportunity for several generations of British stars to congregate, from Ken Stott and Ben Chaplin, and newer models Johnny Flynn and Lily James, who inevitably fall in love because, well, Netflix gotta Netflix.

Dodging all the tedious pedants who want to point out the differences between the actual Sutton Hoo excavation and this incarnation, like casual Netflix viewers would care, it’s still notable that James’ character, Peggy Piggot, is portrayed as a daffy, accident prone Bunty  rather than the experienced, trusted archaeologist she really was. But this is fiction masquerading as fact, and the details are all available elsewhere. Stone’s film aims for something more poetic, and a sense of lives about to be upturned, by war, by illness, by betrayal, and the script, Moira Buffini’s best to date, nails that idea with some skill.

There’s a painful device by which conversations are relayed without synchronised sound that’s something of a problem; regular Netflix viewers will know that lack of synced sound is a regular issue as your content buffers, and we really don’t need artists leaning into that area without good reason. But such quibbles aside, The Dig is quite an achievement given that the world was hardly waiting for another archaeology film, and this well-acted, carefully constructed film is a pleasant, crowd-pleasing, word-of-mouth surprise.

https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/81167887

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  1. I do enjoy watching Ralph Fiennes in most of his roles, and this movie has been on my radar for some time – glad to hear it delivers!

    • Feel the same about Fiennes, he’s always good, and while he’s an ensemble player here, it’s an original, wotthwhile film. Enjoy!

  2. That’s an interesting quibble… I never ran into that but my Internet is pretty powerful though. As for this movie, I honestly couldn’t tell if it would have anything solid to offer but, by the sound of this review, it might actually be worth my time. Thanks for sharing!

    • Even in other people’s houses, and with super wi-fi, I always get some kind of drop-out. Science has not yet caught up with my requirements!

  3. Yep, I dug The Dig and your well mounded review! However, for an instant, I thought you were reviewing Dig, a 2015 made for TV mini series that shoveled dirt off a 2000 year old Israeli prophecy… I’m also digging that there’s more excavation occurring at Sutton Hoo, revealing new treasures and stories to spin…

    • ‘Well-mounded review’ ; very good! Like some of the other commenters, this film made me interested in a particular branch of history that seemed dull previously. And always up for more excavations, is the other Dig worth looking at?

  4. I just watched this but wound up feeling so miserable I killed it before the finish. The overwhelming slow-dying of the Pretty lady was overwrought, as were the academics throwing their weight around with such arrogance. My academics have always respected the “Amateurs” (with a capital A). But I guess if you just make a cool story about what they found you’re only reaching the audience that cares about ancient finds.

    • I hear you, and I think more people will agree with you than me. I can see that pretty’s illness veered into cliche, as did the contrived sniping on site between the factions. But I did admire the film for trying to pitch to someing bigger, and that only really lands towards the end. I started out with what I felt was a two star film, but was won over by the way the ingredients were re-positioned by the end…

    • Yup, I think Johnny Flynn is good, seen him in a few things now. But I can also see why this has missed the mark for some, quite remote in outlook…

  5. The Dig was a pleasant surprise – I really enjoyed it. I actually liked the asynchronous dialogue, it was a slightly arty touch that I think the film survived and perhaps even benefitted from. The romance felt a little rushed, a plotline that was introduced too late for a film, though I suspect would have worked better in the novel. Like a lot of viewers, I suspect, I searched for some photos of the actual dig and I was surprised how accurate the film seems to have been (with the usual artistic licenses of course).

    Anyway, I wrote my thoughts here if you’re interested: https://wp.me/p8BjDL-1jg

    • …and just to pick up your point about the non-synced dialogue. I might have gone for this in the cinema, but I ended up literally checking my bandwidth at several points; when people of Netflix are talking and the words don’t come out, that usually only means one thing and it ain’t art. Maybe I’m just too aware of the likelihood of technical malfunctions to be comfortable with such a gamble…

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