Historical drama ‘The Dig’ uncovers fascinating true story

From left, Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan appear in “The Dig.”

The story of a bunch of Brits in the earlier half of the 20th century out in the countryside spending a majority of the time either digging in a field or sitting around drinking tea and discussing the impending doom of World War II sounds about as exciting as a trip to the dentist on paper, but on film it is utterly captivating.

Granted, that’s if you’re into the sort of movie that “The Dig” is, which as a period piece set in rural England is not everyone’s cup of tea. Directed by Simon Stone and streaming on Netflix, the film is adapted from John Preston’s novel of the same name but nonetheless based on fact — that fact being an archeological discovery for the ages.

For decades movies have been a tool used to get the same message to as many people as possible, both with newsreels and propaganda pictures but also to educate and inform through entertainment. Anytime a movie touts the “based on the untold true story,” I get a little excited knowing thousands if not millions of people will get to learn about something many didn’t know about or remember.

Despite its familiar story beats, clichéd character moments and awards-bait style, “The Dig” possesses enough fascinating history and subtly yet powerful performances from the to leads to make it a worthwhile watch, especially as a Netflix film you can watch on the couch at home.

Set in 1939, wealthy widow Edith Pretty (portrayed by Carey Mulligan) hires local self-taught archaeologist-excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to tackle the large burial mounds at her rural estate in Sutton Hoo.

Starting small and with little support from other archaeologists, Brown and his assistants begin to uncover an Anglo-Saxon burial site several hundred years older than initially expected. News of the discovery soon spreads and a Cambridge archaeologist declares the site to be of national importance, taking over the dig by order of the Office of Works.

As war with Germany approaches, a large team is brought in when an upside down ship is discovered when Peggy Piggott (Lily James) uncovers the first distinctly Anglo-Saxon artifact. But as the government attempts to take the findings for the Crown, Pretty and Brown must hold strong and not let control of the site out of their grasp.

Because this is likely a true story few people remember or have even heard of, the film wastes no time jumping right into it with the first shots showing Brown riding a bicycle up the drive and up the mounds to the house where he immediately meets Pretty and they go out and look at the mounds. It was refreshing to see a movie like this not beat around the bush and get right to the meat of it.

Much of the movie is shot with a handheld camera, often eliciting a documentary or independent film feel which fits right into the idea that no one really knew or cared about this so it’s going to look and feel like it doesn’t have major studio support. Thankfully, the shots are all beautiful and showcase the English countryside as well as any British period piece drama.

As a quick sidebar, not 10 minutes into the runtime and I said to myself, “This is sort of one-half a Terrance Malick film and one-half a James Ivory film,” and then at about 45 minutes in, actor Ben Chaplin shows up, and Chaplin appeared in Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” and Ivory’s “The Remains of the Day,” so that really cemented my initial feelings about it.

Unfortunately, unlike the films of those directors, “The Dig” has an artificial look about it even if it is beautiful. The costumes and sets and everything look nice, but they don’t feel as real as this story probably deserves. Thankfully, the meat of the story is the characters and their evolutions through the process of digging up the burial site.

As is usually the case, there are themes of class and sex struggle as the rich men from London think they know better than the women and lower class workers doing the work. Reflective and occasionally melancholic, there is a bittersweet irony to digging up a millennia-old graveyard to learn about the past as World War II looms on the horizon. But with a wonderful cast of actors and genuinely interesting story, this is an entertaining history lesson worth attending.

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