Countless moments make up the grand expanse of time, many of them little, a select few exceptionally large. Some are so monumental that they cast shadows over all the other moments happening simultaneously, leaving us pieces of history that, whilst not necessarily forgotten, are certainly overlooked.
The second World War overshadowed many moments, and cinema, and all other forms of art and many forms of academia have endeavoured to shine new light upon them. One such effort is Simon Stone’s latest feature “The Dig”. It’s a tale told in that tumultuous time leading into WWII, one which reminds us that even amongst such raw chaos, the great and heartwarming stories of existence are still occurring.
This tale is about Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), a self-taught archaeologist and excavator who comes into the employ of widow Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), as tensions rapidly rise throughout Europe in 1938. What follows is an exploration of one of the most significant archaeological discoveries in history and truth about the man who began the monumental undertaking. Eventually joining them are a plethora of both charming and antagonising figures who come to make up one of the great moments lost amongst humanity destroying itself.
Basil Brown grew up on dig sites; his father would bring him along and teach him the trade. It became a livelihood for Basil, and something he had a deep, immeasurable love for, born from the fact he was very good at it. When Edith Pretty contacts him about digging up mounds on her property you can tell Basil senses he has made it. Not thanks to any burst of excitement, or any outward showing of relief or gratitude, but because of how he examines the land. He knows he will find something, he may not pick the exact spot, but he knows that this land is special, just as Edith does.
Upon getting the job things move along rather spectacularly, and all is well until national authorities get involved. When it becomes apparent that Basil is uncovering a burial ship potentially full of priceless artefacts, the British museum is sent in to take over. It is these men sent in who for years were given the credit of the discoveries at Sutton Hoo, and as the films end text states, it is only recently that Basil has received his due. This catapults the film further into the realms of conflict as the minds trying to lead the excavation clash and the peripheral figures grow in prominence.
And that’s precisely why this film is so moving. Everyone involved knows this is special, from Edith’s young son Robert (Archie Barnes) to the often-antagonistic British museum representative Charles Phillips (Ken Stott), and when it matters, they are all in it together. Supplemented wonderfully by two rising British stars in Johnny Flynn and Lily James and the ensemble is one of Netflix’s most loveable to date, especially when it comes to their UK endeavours.
As things roll along and the drama amps up seeing Edith’s health fail, the actors raise their game and as do those behind the camera. Stone and his cinematographer Mike Eley capture an England bathed in summer sunlight and juxtapose it brilliantly against vicious rain. Their efforts further buoyed by the simply gorgeous score composed by Stefan Gregory in his first-ever feature film.
When everything comes together, you feel that this team had every desire to tell this story properly and spark their figures’ legacies to life on screen. So touching and compassionate is near every moment that you completely ignore the generally straightforward way they present the events.
Sometimes a bit of heart-warming movie magic is enough, and it’s enough for The Dig.
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