Robert Preston’s 2007 historical novel The Dig was inspired by a little-known but historically significant British event: on the eve of World War II, in 1939 Suffolk, a self-taught yet well-experienced excavator, Basil Brown, was called to the country estate of Edith Pretty, a widowed mother of one. Mrs. Pretty hired Brown, described by his colleagues as a difficult and unorthodox man, to mine the large burial mounds occupying her backyard. While many believed the mounds dated back to the Vikings, Brown had other ideas. Their partnership, along with the help of others, led to one of Britain’s biggest archaeological finds — a 7th-century Anglo-Saxon burial ship.
Simon Stone’s historically inspired Netflix film The Dig, adapted by Moira Buffini from Preston’s novel, seizes on the little-known historical event to craft a sometimes tedious romance concerning war and mortality that’s bitten by tired Hollywood conventions. The Dig steers clear of the nitty-gritty detail some archaeology aficionados might crave. Instead, its pastoral love story serves those in search of a melodramatic escape.
Consider the casting of Carey Mulligan as Mrs. Pretty. Her conservative wardrobe consists of large overcoats, ankle-length floral-patterned dresses, and understated bonnets, which match her reserved personality. And she suffers from an unknown debilitating ailment, initially diagnosed as ulcer-related anxiety, that zaps much of her vigor. Mrs. Pretty was in her late 50s during the film’s pre-World War II historical events, but Stone makes her two decades younger. Mulligan is usually an assured actor, but in The Dig, where she isn’t even aged by makeup or prosthetics, she’s woefully miscast as a woman beaten down by the ravages of old age.
The decision to cast Mulligan might stem from the reality of Mrs. Pretty giving birth to her son Robert (Archie Barnes) when she was 47. While Stone endeavors to depict Mrs. Pretty as a singularly determined woman, willful enough, in later scenes, to fight the British Museum for control of the Anglo-Saxon artifact, he obscures her identity as an older mother in the hopes of teasing her as a potential love interest for the significantly older Brown (Ralph Fiennes). The decision pitches The Dig in with other conventional period pieces, such as The Last Samurai and Where Angels Fear to Tread, where the widowed wife falls for a man who arrives by chance. Though Stone thankfully doesn’t remain in that register for long, the suggestion that this will be a standard romance makes the film’s opening duller than it needs to be. Once Stone diverts his focus from both Mrs. Pretty and Brown to another swirling romance, the narrative gains momentum.
After Brown discovers a possible Viking ship underneath the burial mounds, the site comes to the attention of the pretentious Charles Phillips (Ken Scott), archaeologist for the British Museum. Phillips commandeers the site and brings in other archeologists, like married couple Stuart (Ben Chaplin) and Peggy Piggott (Lily James) to assist in excavating. Though Stuart cares for Peggy, his affections are rarely intimate. He opts for single beds at their inn, and ignores Peggy’s multiple shows of affection. Stuart finds far more comfort in the company of his male friends. Peggy, is left unnoticed until she comes under the romantic eye of Mrs. Pretty’s dashing cousin Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn). It’s through their burgeoning love the outside world impedes upon the dig.
The signs of looming war are everywhere in The Dig: RAF planes fly above the Suffolk countryside, fresh recruits are boarding the backs of army trucks, and in London, soldiers are sandbagging statues. But Mrs. Pretty’s serene patch of land, captured by cinematographer Mike Eley in lyrical handheld shots, is untethered from the worried country. Peggy and Rory’s swooning romance, weighed by the latter’s looming deployment to the RAF, not only brings this slow burn to a boil, but it makes the war’s oncoming dangers immediately felt. James and Flynn are also such an aesthetically pleasing pair. With the sparsest of screen time, they maintain Peggy and Rory’s simmering mutual desire with a knowing glance here, an eye-lock there.
Other arcs take flight, too, as Robert comes of age through fairy tales, and Stuart explores a latent gay relationship with a colleague. But neither of those subplots pull with the same intensity as Mrs. Pretty’s dread of her mortality and her desire to be remembered. The possible Viking ship Brown uncovers, from its intended purpose as a tomb to its clear symbolism as an artifact of legacy, represents the cyclical ways humans try to commemorate our brief time on earth. It’s why Brown fears the snobbish Phillips will erase his name from the discovery, why Mrs. Pretty desperately tries to wrestle control of the found artifacts from Phillips, or why Rory takes photographs of the excavation. They’re hoping, through this historic discovery, to be remembered.
A beautifully rendered pre-war parable for the fleeting nature of love and life, The Dig initially doesn’t lean as closely toward mortality’s gate as it should. Stone, for much of the film, seems lost between two different stories: the intimate archeological relationship between Brown and Mrs. Pretty, and the larger romantic canvas of Rory and Peggy. To interlock the competing narrative he drastically prunes the former so the latter might blossom, and in the process, stunts both. Leaving history buffs wanting, and for a time, leaving those searching for sentimental escapism adrift. But once he totally sheds the archaeological components for a palpable sense of melancholy in the face of mortality, The Dig becomes the type of passionate period piece worth snuggling up to.
The Dig opens in limited theatrical release on January 15, and expands to Netflix release on January 29. Check Polygon’s guidelines for local theater safety here.