Set in Suffolk County, England, just before Britain entered the second world war, “The Dig” is based on an actual archaeological dig that uncovered treasures surprising to both scholars and historians. Director Simon Stone bases his movie on a book by the same name describing the uncovering of the now famous Sutton Hoo treasure, much of which is still on display in the British Museum.
Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), a wealthy widow with a young son, lives on an estate in eastern England near the North Sea. On the grounds of the estate are several very large mounds of earth arranged in a way that resembles burial grounds. Having at one time been admitted to a university to study archaeology, Edith was dissuaded by her father who felt that such an education was unsuitable for a young woman. But her interest in that pursuit has remained.
With both the funds and the time now to explore her passion for uncovering the past, Edith hires an experienced although working-class excavator, Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), to dig up at least one of the mounds. Not a scientist by education, he learned excavating techniques from his father and his own continued research has prepared him for this endeavor. After some partial exploratory digging, he and Edith settle on one particular mound that she feels has the most promise.
Edith’s young son, Robert, already interested in astronomy, discovers that Basil has brought a telescope with him and the two indulge in star-gazing each night after a day of digging in the ground. During the daytime, there are continual reminders of imminent war as RAF planes are seen and heard buzzing overhead. When Basil’s digging finally uncovers the outlines of an 88-foot-long wooden ship, the news spreads and soon archaeologists from the British Museum descend upon the excavation site.
The wooden outline appears to be that of a Viking ship. Among the archeologists sent by the Museum to assist in the dig are a young couple, Stuart (Ben Chaplin) and his wife Peggy (Lily James), and a sub-plot unfolds as we observe their frayed marriage. Carefully using brushes and refined digging tools, the team searches for artifacts buried within the ship and it is Peggy who comes upon jewelry made of gold set with garnets. These would not have been found on a Viking ship. Basil has said all along that he thought the ship pre-dated the Vikings and was probably from the sixth century. He is proved correct; the ship dates back to Anglo-Saxon times. This discovery brings even more archaeologists and historians to the site as they realize the discovered treasures are rare relics from Anglo-Saxon culture.
While all of these scientific developments occur, we see Edith visiting doctors as she struggles with an illness that endangers her life. She finds satisfaction and pride in the discovery she has brought about—a discovery that will change the study of early Anglo-Saxon culture. But she worries about the care of her son Robert when her illness worsens. With this in mind, Edith summons her cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn) for his assistance. Many plot developments ensue as Rory arrives and as a declaration of war grows even closer.
Both Mulligan and Fiennes provide superb performances. Fiennes, who became famous in the 1990s for his portrayal of the English patient in the movie by that name, has moved from romantic leads to roles of older and often eccentric characters. His portrayal of Basil is shaded and nuanced as we learn more and more about the confidence he has developed pursuing a field comprised mostly of academics. The versatile Mulligan is convincing in her role as Edith even as she stars in another newly released film, “Promising Young Woman.” Her career continues to grow and diversify.
“The Dig” can be seen on Netflix.