Photo | Netflix
It’s rather hard to believe the streaming service where “Tiger King” once trended now has the delicately emotional “The Dig” listed among its most popular offerings. This period drama, based on real events, has a terrific cast — starring Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes — exquisitely beautiful cinematography and fascinating details about archeology, but it does not offer much in the thrills department. The film’s pleasures are many, but they are understated.
In 1937, a wealthy widow named Edith Pretty (Mulligan) hired self-taught excavator Basil Brown (Fiennes) to help her with a project she had dreamt of for a long time: to dig out the mysterious ancient mounds on her large estate, Sutton Hoo. Herself a thwarted would-be student of archeology, Edith had a strong feeling something important was waiting in the earth, so she poached the taciturn but gifted excavator from his job at the Ipswich Museum and placed her dig in his hands.
Archeology is a slow and meticulous process, uncovering fragile treasures at a very careful pace, sometimes working with a spoon instead of a shovel. So too does the plot of “The Dig” unearth the characters’ deepest emotions, but not in a hurry. Edith and Basil share mutual respect and a bond, particularly over Edith’s delightful young son, Robert, who is in many ways the jubilant heart of this somewhat mournful film. As the importance of the dig gains the attention of Britain’s most renowned archeologists and museums, Edith always advocates for her original partner and confidant, Basil Brown.
Joining the dig is Lily James as Peggy Piggott, whose nephew wrote the novel on which this film is based, and her husband, played by Ben Chaplin — their relationship is another one laid bare by the experience of the life-changing excavation. Edith’s handsome and sympathetic cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn) comes to help out and, as a soon-to-be RAF pilot, represents everything that is about to be gambled when Britain goes to war with Germany. Flynn, who played Mr. Knightley in last year’s “Emma” alongside Anya Taylor-Joy, is another breakout star.
Like other dramas set against a backdrop of major historical events, “The Dig” brings a personal view to broader events. As we get to know these characters, the viewer really feels the stress and pain of the nation at that moment. Furthermore, Edith is facing her own mortality as she received a serious health diagnosis. Essentially, every one of these sweet, smart people who we come to know spends most of the film looking at a loved one and wondering if it will be for the last time. I thought the dramatization of the beginning of World War II was extremely moving. It was haunting actually, and I cannot stop thinking about certain small but important moments.
Eventually, Basil and the others unearth an entire ship, and this burial site is one of the most significant archeological finds of all time. They are face to face with history, looking backward and forward. But this tender and quiet film looks upon this incredibly significant event with little fanfare. Some viewers might actually prefer a bit more fanfare.
But for those with patience, “The Dig” is an exceptionally beautiful film. Ralph Fiennes is never anything less than absolutely believable, while the young boy, played by a phenomenal young man named Archie Barnes, broke my heart completely. Come for the fascinating true story of the incredible dig, stay for the emotionally nuanced portrayal of the devastating human toll of war. “The Dig” is a perfectly realized, absolutely fascinating portrayal of history that is also a deeply personal meditation on mortality.
“The Dig” is now streaming on Netflix.
New This Week:
“Blithe Spirit”: Best-selling crime novelist Charles (Dan Stevens) suffers from terrible writer’s block and is struggling to finish his first screenplay. His picture-perfect new wife, Ruth (Isla Fisher), is doing her best to keep him focused so they can fulfill her dream of leaving London for Hollywood. Charles’s quest for inspiration leads him to invite the eccentric mystic Madame Arcati (Judi Dench) to perform a séance in his home. He gets more than he bargained for when Madame Arcati inadvertently summons the spirit of his first wife: the brilliant and fiery Elvira (Leslie Mann). Ready to pick up her life right where she left off, Elvira is shocked to discover the prim and proper Ruth is now married to her husband and running her household. Charles finds himself stuck between his two wives and their increasingly over-the-top attempts to outdo one another in this lethally hilarious comedy. Crescent Theater.
“Judas and the Black Messiah”: FBI informant William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) infiltrates the Illinois Black Panther Party and is tasked with keeping tabs on their charismatic leader, Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). A career thief, O’Neal revels in the danger of manipulating both his comrades and his handler, Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). All listed multiplex theaters, Nexus Cinema Dining.
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