- Adam Carr
The Dig (2021) Review
There are combinations that never let down- Tanqueray and tonic, hot fudge and vanilla ice cream and hot tubs and ski lounges. In film putting #ralphfiennes and #careymulligan together is one of those pleasures. They're together in director Simon Stone's "The Dig." Based on the novel of the same name by #johnpreston, #thedig tells the story of an heiress, Edith Pretty (Mulligan), who hires an independent local excavator, Basil Brown (Fiennes), to dig up large mounds on her property which are believed to be burials from the days of the Vikings.
The story takes place in England just on the eve of declaring war on Nazi Germany. It is based on a true story which adds some dramatic weight to both the story and the characters. Brown is one of those professionals, knowledgeable and good at his work. He goes about his business head down and focused. He's not one to make a fuss or advertise his own accomplishments which means he's outside the exclusive club of archeologists. He is without fame or fortune and living on each job he can scrape up but played by Mr. Fiennes he carries the dignity of a working man who's reliable.
Ms. Mulligan brings her own dignity to her character. Left alone on her property with a young boy to raise she is not without a sense of justice. Hampered by physical ailments but very much in charge of her own affairs she is still susceptible to gentlemanly company. Her attempted liaison with Brown is subtle but becomes the flame that heats the story. But their interest in each other is derailed by protocol. Her disappointment doesn't affect her judgement or good sense which is a good foil for the forces she and Brown have to contend with.
Together they venture to find what treasure, if any, is buried on Edith's property. It turns out to be big and worthy of a book and film. "The Dig" gets crowded when word of some discoveries begin to leak out and human deficiencies like greed and desire for recognition move major institutions, museums and government, into the story. That's when their hacks to get involved. Which is good thing since it adds the right amount of drama to accompany the two leads. Between it all both Brown and Edith keep their humanity which gives the film its soul.
The film gets weighted down by a parallel story of a married couple Peggy (Lilly James) and Stuart (Ben Chaplin) Piggott hitting a turbulent patch. Not so much a turbulent patch but an identity awakening that could be in a movie all its own. Actually, it's already been made into films like "Far From Heaven," "Brideshead Revisited" and episodes of "Mad Men." Peggy and Stuart are brought in to help excavate the site by the British museum. There Stuart has enough cover to pursue a same sex attraction and Peggy gravitates towards Edith's brother (Archie Barnes) for comfort. Both Ms. James and Mr. Chaplin make the subplot watchable but it breaks the mood that was well established by Mr. Stone.
Mr. Stone looks quite busy. He created an atmosphere ripe with intrigue between two people who would go against their better judgement if they were to answer their desire's call. The undercurrent of romantic repression between Brown and Edith he keeps from boiling over but has enough of it to keep his audience grasping for hope. Mr. Stone's directing techniques are in their infancy. He seems to be trying too much out of method photography. Using photography's rule of thirds, which places the subject on the far side of the screen with nature filling out the rest, too many times. Instead of using it once for emotional effect he scatters it about the film pulling us out of the mood he so successfully established. In the editing he over lapses his dialogue with his visuals several times too many when once would have had the impact he was looking for. After watching and listening to these scenes a couple of times one gets the feeling that Mr. Stone is just playing with technique to see what he can come up with. His work in the theater is well regarded but there is a difference in staging for an audience and staging for the camera.
But the main story is so engaging that these deficiencies can be tolerated. Mr. Fiennes and Ms. Mulligan are two jewels of their profession who should be challenged with complicated and against type characters often. To watch them embody such characters is a night's worth of pleasure and makes "The Dig" a stop worth visiting again.