Set in Great Britain on the brink of World War II, The Dig, based on both a true story and the novel of the same name by John Preston, follows the extraordinary excavation of a rare Anglo-Saxon burial ship and its treasures, otherwise known as Sutton Hoo. The story begins when a wealthy widow named Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) hires Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), a self-taught excavator and archeologist, to uncover the large, mysterious mounds that are scattered on the lands of her estate.
While the mounds of dirt and grass are unassuming at first glance, both Mrs. Pretty and Brown have an enthusiastic feeling that something amazing lies beneath the surface. Brown begins his work with a ragtag team of Mrs. Pretty’s assistants, but the men soon make an incredible discovery: a large Anglo-Saxon ship, used as a burial site for someone who must have been of great importance. While the term “Anglo-Saxon” may not mean much to anyone who is unfamiliar with archaeology and history (myself included; my Co-Editor at The Path says it’s about Vikings or…something), back in 1939 this sort of discovery was a huge deal.
The project is quickly taken over by a Mr. Charles Phillips, a demanding and rather rude man who is sent from the British Museum to oversee the excavation. He brings an additional team of archaeologists, including Stuart and Peggy Piggott, both famous figures in the archeology and research world. In addition to the ship, the team discovers several priceless artifacts, many of which are made of solid gold.
While the exciting process of the excavation lies at the forefront of the film’s story, there are several other factors that add conflict and distress to the characters’ lives. The threat of war is most definitely the biggest one; each day arrives with more distressing news about the Germans, and the uncertainty surrounding the British military’s ability to handle a full-scale war causes anxiety. Even with the artifacts, there is concern that they could perish should the British Museum be bombed. The looming threat of a devastating war casts a cloud over the joy of the Sutton Hoo discovery.
Additionally, the widowed Mrs. Pretty’s health is failing and she worries for her young son, Robert. Her cousin Rory Lomax, who has come to the site to help dig and take photographs, knows that the Air Force will call him in to serve any day. Peggy Piggott is clearly unhappy in her marriage and yearns for something more. All of these underlying factors add layers to the film, making it more than just about people digging up a ship.
With its gorgeous visuals and stellar acting, the film is a solid work. While the trailer made the film seem deceivingly boring, it was actually quite interesting to watch how the titular “dig” itself plays out. However, it should be noted that The Dig certainly isn’t the most exciting film you could be watching right now. The plot is rather slow, and not much happens during the almost two hour runtime. While the gradual development of the excavation is accented by quietly dramatic moments, the film can feel like more of a documentary at times.
Despite being monotonous every now and then, The Dig still contains short, poignant moments that make the watch worthwhile. One small component that I particularly enjoyed was the relationship between the young Robert Pretty and Basil Brown. While Brown is gruff and not the most friendly at first, Robert begins to see a sort of father figure within him, and the two do nice and sentimental activities together, such as looking at the stars through Brown’s telescope. The childlike wonder of Robert and the cultivated experience of Basil lead to a lovely friendship between the two.
Like most historical films based on true stories, the film ends with a short written afterword. The discovered treasure was hidden in the London Underground and kept safe from the destruction of the war, and eventually exhibited in 1951, nine years after Edith Pretty’s death. However, Basil Brown’s name was never mentioned. His great contribution was only officially recognized in recent years, and his name is now listed next to Mrs. Pretty’s at the exhibit in the British Museum.
The film is a lovingly crafted tribute to Basil Brown, and his painstakingly executed work at the excavation site of the Sutton Hoo. Despite facing many obstacles, from the threat of war to the snobby museum administrators that don’t recognize him as an official archeologist, Brown persisted in his work, showing his dedication and devotion to the art of “the dig.” While it is entirely possible that many viewers may have never even heard of the Sutton Hoo, the film is still a fascinating piece of history that showcases the weight behind the passage of time.
In all honesty, this isn’t the type of film that you watch over and over again. With its slowly paced plot and mundane, day-to-day depiction of what an excavation looks like, it can be more of a snoozer than an exciting movie to watch with the whole family. Even if you already enjoy watching historical films, you’ll probably prefer 1917 or Saving Private Ryan over The Dig. The film is worth watching one time, but if you end up falling asleep halfway through, don’t say I didn’t warn you.