By Lynn Venhaus
Who knew watching people digging in the dirt would be so fascinating? That’s one of the surprising things about “The Dig,” which is based in fact and never dull.
Another revelation is how compelling the characters are – and that’s a credit to the fine performances, but also the script by Moira Buffini, who adapted John Preston’s 2007 book.
Seen through the eyes of the property owner and the modest working-class excavator, this thoroughly engaging film gives us an authentic account of how a 6th century ship is discovered underground and the battles it provokes.
In1938, Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) hired local excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to dig into those mysterious mounds of earth on her Sutton Hoo property, near Suffolk. What he discovers is remarkable in its historical significance – an Anglo-Saxon ship, with a burial chamber, from the 6th century. It would become the largest archeological find in England. Museum officials start fighting over it, as do university archeologists. At this same time, the country is on the verge of going to war with Germany after Hitler invades Poland.
Mulligan is terrific as Pretty, the fiercely loyal wealthy widow who won’t allow Brown’s contributions to be minimized, even though the snobby museum professionals demean his lack of training.
Brown is a bit unorthodox. An expert digger, Fiennes convincingly conveys this humble man — his eccentricities, prowess and gratitude over Mrs. Pretty’s kindness.
This much-lauded duo delivers nuanced portraits of the real people who gave the story its heart, and their friendship is one of the story’s best elements. Child actor Archie Barnes is an important component as young Robert Pretty, Edith’s son who forms a strong bond with Brown.
The supporting cast is also strong. Lily James is a bright spot as a capable academic, Peggy Piggott, whose unhappiness with her inattentive husband (Ben Chaplin) grows.
Johnny Flynn, so good in “Emma” and “Beast,” shows his versatility as Rory Lomax, Edith’s relative who preserves the scene with his camera but joins the RAF during the big activity on the grounds. Monica Dolan plays sweet May Brown, Basil’s supportive wife.
Australian director Simon Stone respects both the history and the human nature in telling the story, and lets the atmosphere speak for itself.
The creative work is important in keeping us riveted. Maria Djurkovic’s earthy production design is one of awe and wonder, with cinematographer Michael Eley capturing the stunning landscapes. Costume designer Alice Babidge’s period work is impressive, and Stefan Gregory’s music score punctuates the action well.
In not-so-subtle ways, “The Dig” emphasizes life, death and time in a smart, richly textured and endearing work. Dig in!
“The Dig” is an historical drama directed by Simon Stone and starring Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James, Johnny Flynn, Ben Chaplin and Monica Dolan. Rated: PG-13 for brief sensuality and partial nudity, the film runs 1 hour, 52 minutes. Lynn’s Grade: A. In select theaters and on Netflix Jan. 29.