A movie about a great archeological discovery loses itself in weak personal subplots
‘The Dig’ is a historical melodrama, now airing on Netflix, about the discovery of the Sutton Hoo treasure, a cache of invaluable Anglo-Saxon artifacts. Excavators uncovered the treasure in 1939, on the eve of the outbreak of World War II. That sounds like it would make an excellent movie. If only the Dig were that film.
Directed by: Simon Stone
Written by: Moira Buffini
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Carey Mulligan, Lily James, Jonny Flynn
Running time: 112 min
Carey Mulligan plays an Unpromising Middle-Aged Widow with a fatal heart condition. She owns a valuable piece of property in Suffolk that is full of mounds, but not Almond Joy. She hires a local excavator, played with restrained dignity by Ralph Fiennes, who looks old as shit. The Dig begins, and after several terrifying scenes featuring mud and dirt, Ralph Fiennes discovers the belly of an ancient Celtic ship. This attracts the attention of the British Museum, and then it’s a race against time before Hitler reduces the entire United Kingdom to dust.
People are touting The Dig as a must-see for archaeology buffs. And it’s true that Sutton Hoo is one of the most significant archeological finds of the 20th Century. The movie doesn’t skimp on telling us that. There’s some decent tension between the British Museum and the local historical society in the first hour. We see lots of Fiennes pounding dirt with his pickaxe, and studying his texts. That alone, with maybe a little overhang of the impending war, would be plenty for an excellent archaeology movie.
But I’ve seen people online comparing The Dig to Raiders of The Lost Ark. If you’re going to watch The Dig, do not expect Raiders of The Lost Ark. The film contains no action, save for one nail-biting sequence where Fiennes is buried alive, and one where Mulligan’s 10-year-old son rides his bicycle a long distance. Most of the movie is weird orchestral music and people staring at the rain.
The Dig slightly over-dramatizes Mulligan’s illness. But at least the woman on whom Mulligan is based was actually sick and actually did die soon after the discovery. There are also some nice personalizing scenes between Fiennes’ misunderstood excavator and his long-suffering wife, who waits patiently in the village while he gets his hands dirty. These things give The Dig some personal stakes, and make Fiennes and Mulligan effective underdogs against the colonialist juggernaut that is the British Museum.
But then, halfway through the movie, Lily James shows up as a lady archaeologist, wearing glasses and a brown wig to make her look dowdy. Lily James has an archaeologist husband, who is in the closet and therefore neglects Lily James when she’s naked in the bath. Lily James’ character is based on an actual female archaeologist who worked on the Sutton Hoo site, though probably not in floral print skirts, which is what James wears while digging through the mud. Presumably, this real person took baths. But Basil Brown, the real person on whom Ralph Fiennes is based, probably also took baths. Yet we don’t see him in the bath. We only see him washing his hands at an outdoor faucet.
The second half of the movie is mostly scenes of Lily James, an accomplished social scientist, trying to get her gay husband to look at her naked. Who wouldn’t want to look at Lily James, the actually hot mousy girl, naked, wonders the movie about a significant archeological discovery? In the end, the gay husband gets to go be gay, and Lily James gets to have an outdoor shag with a sexy outgoing soldier, and therefore Finds Herself.
Mind you, this isn’t a small subplot. It is literally the entire second half of the movie. Ralph Fiennes, the important character, leaves for many scenes at a time so we can look at Lily James in the bath.
Also, The Dig has some annoying modern director tricks. Characters talk in one scene, but before the scene is over, it cuts to the next scene, but we can still hear the characters talking in the previous scene. This is supposed to represent the Passage of Time or mortality or something, but it’s just confusing. In another scene, set in a shed during a rainstorm, Mulligan and Fiennes get to know each other. They have a Deep Conversation, and we hear that conversation, but we only see Mulligan shivering sadly while looking at the rain. If we’re going to see the conversation, we should see it too. That’s just a suggestion from me, a simple Netflix-watching farmer.
Perhaps it’s too much to ask for an old-fashioned rousing crowd-pleaser about an underdog archeological discovery under difficult conditions, and against tremendous odds. But some directors make movies to be popular, while others aim for art. Most truly great films usually meet somewhere in the middle. But director Simon Stone has an art attack, Carey Mulligan has a heart attack, and it all ends up burying a treasure of a movie under mounds and mounds of treacle.