Like the archeological excavation that lies at the center of “The Dig,” a new drama starring Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes and now streaming on Netflix, the movie is slow and steady but reveals much if you’re patient.
Based on the 1939 unearthing of a ship burial site containing a bounty of Anglo-Saxon artefacts in Sutton Hoo, near Suffolk, England, “The Dig” stars Mulligan as Edith Pretty, a wealthy widow who hires amateur archeologist Basil Brown (Fiennes) to excavate ancient burial mounds on her property. Auto-didact Brown’s discovery of a treasure trove of priceless artefacts attracts the attention of the toffs at the British Museum, who insist on taking control of the dig. As World War II looms and Pretty’s health worsens, the job takes on a personal and professional urgency.
Unsurprisingly, “The Dig” spends a great deal of time at the excavation but, as the riches of the job reveal themselves, the interpersonal dynamics of the characters take center stage.
As the salt-of-the-earth Mr. Brown, Fiennes is a stoic figure who provides much of the film’s heart and soul. Early on, in an effective but clumsy metaphor, he is revealed to be the film’s real treasure after he is accidentally buried, swallowed up by the dig, and unearthed by his frantic co-workers. His presence is the film’s catalyst for a study of class and of respect born of hard work and study. He even becomes a father figure for Pretty’s son Robert (Archie Barnes). Fiennes plays him with an appealing mix of decency and stubbornness.
Mulligan’s chaste, but deeply felt relationship with Mr. Brown, is nicely played but as the ensemble cast grows to include the British Museum folks, the snobby Charles Phillips (Ken Stott), John Brailsford (Eamon Farren), Stuart Piggott (Ben Chaplin) and his young wife Peggy (Lily James) and Pretty’s cousin Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn), she takes a backseat as an illicit romance blossoms. She is, predictably, very good, but as her health declines so does her dominance of the story.
“The Dig” confronts big issues but maintains an intimate feel. It’s not a story of archeology, although James is shown lovingly dusting dirt encrusted artefacts. The portrayal of class and impending war never overshadow the more relatable topics of legacy and teamwork. It’s a quiet movie, one filled with longing looks where much is left unsaid, but nothing is ambiguous.