Generation and gender restrictions overshadowed the contributions of the 19th century English paleontologist Mary Anning, magnificently achieved by Kate Winslet in Francis Lee’s slow-burning elemental love tale Ammonite. And class barriers continue to marginalize Ralph Fiennes’ self-taught archaeologist Basil Brown’s work almost a century later in The Dig. Simon Stone’s account of the groundbreaking 1939 discovery of a burial chamber that throws fresh light on the Dark Ages takes a somewhat uncomfortable drift away from what is essentially a two-character piece into a broader ensemble drama, somewhat diffusing the emotional base. But the storytelling is laced with a soft thread of sadness that makes this Netflix feature very touching.
Adapted by playwright and screenwriter Moira Buffini from John Preston’s 2007 book, the retelling takes several freedoms by reversing the age gap between the lead characters in real life, possibly emphasizing the quasi-romance whisper in their meeting. Fiennes is almost ten years older than Brown was at the time of his historic discovery. In comparison, Carey Mulligan is 20 years younger than her character Edith Beautiful, a rich woman in her mid-50s when she employed Brown to dig an ancient burial mound in her Suffolk farm, Sutton Hoo.
Audiences who savored Mulligan’s audacious plunge into a socially dynamic contemporary character in Promising Young Woman may have been a little let down to see her back too quickly in the sensitive Cardigans and Frocks of the tasteful British period drama. But here is a lovely delicacy to her job.
Edith’s unfailing admiration for Basil, a ridiculed farmer as “unorthodox and untrained” by archaeologists at the Ipswich Museum, and her scholarly affinity with the rough-edged self-taught add complexity and poignancy to their relationship. The fact that she had a position at the University of London, but her late father may not have learned of her, gives her insight into how Basil was shut out of the research community despite his sharp, enthusiastic mind.
From the beginning, Buffini’s script reveals that while Basil’s working-class outsider status in a sector populated by trained toffs, he is not a pushover. He refuses Edith’s original lowball bid to work on the project and returns only after she promises to pay him what he’s worth. The widowed landowner is perhaps partly persuaded in his favor by Basil’s warmth towards her young son, Robert (Archie Barnes). The latter ties the tweedy old chap to their mutual love of astronomy.
As Basil’s former Ipswich Museum superiors (Paul Ready, Peter McDonald) want to recruit him back to work on a Roman villa excavation, he decides instead to stay in Mrs. Pretty’s role. A quiet conversation between them about “digging down to meet the dead” shows an affinity in their thoughts on the relationship between past and present, particularly as the rumblings of war with Germany cast a shadow over the future. The near-fatality at Sutton Hoo seems to reinforce their relation, but Edith’s invitation to dine at home is delayed by an unwelcome visit by Basil’s devoted wife May. (Monica Dolan).
A faint sense creeps into the dreaded “based on a true storey” argument to be contradicted by what seems to be invented hints of failed romance between Edith and Basil, with that factor exacerbated by the heart disease that makes her increasingly vulnerable. But the performers maintain that the dignity of the characters is never undermined, and Stone displays appealing discipline.
The Dig shifts in gear as Basil’s finds confirm his early perception that the soil could produce remains dating back past the Vikings, which turn out to be an Anglo-Saxon sail hauled up to the ground bury a warrior or king. The momentous discovery attracts new scrutiny from the Ipswich contingent, which refuses Edith’s bid to take over the dig. But the arrival of Charles Phillips (Ken Stott), an ignorant snob from the British Museum, is more difficult to shake off as he considers the site to be of national cultural significance and puts it under the Ministry’s jurisdiction.
Buffini doesn’t wholly resist the appeal of deluxe, Downton Abbey’s historic soap as a mini-swarm of new characters converges on a stunning landscape, offering more repressed emotions. Among them are Edith’s free-spirited cousin Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn), who served in the Royal Air Force; Stuart Piggott (Ben Chaplin), a younger archaeologist taken on board by Phillips; and Stuart’s wife Peggy (Lily James). Despite her scholarly curiosity and hunger for field knowledge, she was disconcerted to find that she was chosen mostly because her slim build made her less likely to destroy the frail old vessel as they began to explore.
A secondary storyline threatens to take hold after discovering that Peggy is barely interrupted in the bedroom and that Stuart is visibly more jolly surrounding Phillips’ reedy young associate Brailsford (Eamon Farren). When the two men go off to do lab work on some relics, the longing looks between Peggy and Rory make it easy to presume where things are going. But the drama never feels trite or unnecessarily emotional, even though Stefan Gregory’s tinkling score often pushes the boundaries.
This is primarily because the script and the actors allow each of the characters their integrity. This is particularly true of Chaplin and James, who has a tender reckoning, and even more so of the magnificent Dolan Might, a woman who may not be a perfect match of Basil’s mind but more than compensates for her wisdom and her emotional conviction that his contribution must not be forgotten. The relationships of Mulligan’s Edith with May and Peggy, to whom she becomes a loving big sister even when her wellbeing fails, offer moments of understatement of sweetness.
The accelerating danger of war is nicely witnessed, for example, when Edith is in London for a medical appointment and sees sandbags stacked around historical landmarks for safety. Or when a young airman crashes through the nearby outskirts, a solemn reminder of the risks Rory is about to encounter. Making Rory a keen photographer feeds on the theme of documenting short memories when the present becomes past and fears being lost to the future. In a thoughtful moment characteristic of Fiennes’ calculated success, Basil shares his conviction that “We’re part of something continuous. So we don’t die.”