The Dig (2021)
We are in Suffolk, England, in 1939. Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), a widow who owns a rather large portion of land, hires "Basil Brown - excavator" (Ralph Fiennes) to dig up some rather promising mounds on her property. It's based on a true story, and for something so simple, it truly is enjoyable.
We first meet Basil as he rides his bicycle along the dirt roads of Suffolk, en route to Edith's house. Upon arrival, Edith shows him her mounds (not a euphemism), and then lowballs him in their payment negotiations. Now, next time I'm negotiating a deal, and someone lowballs me, I know exactly what I'm going to do: mount my bicycle without hesitation and ride off into the sunset until they meet my demands. Basil knows how to negotiate. All of Basil's demands are met. He's clearly in the wrong industry. Basil accepts the new and improved offer, and sets to work, excavating the mounds in his vest and tie, like the proper gentleman he is. Thank goodness this is the 21st century and labourers no longer need to wear a vest and tie. I imagine high vis is far more comfortable.
The Dig attacks themes such as misogyny and classism; themes you'd expect to pervade a film set in 1939. Basil is technically uneducated, but has learned everything that there is to know about archaeology from his father. Yet, he is given little to no credit by the trained professionals because of his lack of schooling. The female characters in this film, such as Edith and Peggy Piggott (Lily James), are treated as you'd expect. Edith qualified for London University in her youth, but her father prevented her from attending. Her health issues are chalked up to that good old classic: nerves... Until she goes to a new doctor (who may be from the future) who informs her that it's actually a heart condition, that will inevitably kill her. Meanwhile, while Peggy initially believes that she was accepted onto the Sutton Hoo dig for her brains, it turns out that it was actually due to her petite frame, and the fact that it is less likely to damage the dig site. Finally, when Peggy uncovers gold at the site, her male counterparts turn to her and say, "You clever girl". I'd ordinarily find this to be terribly patronising, but I like to think that they were instead comparing her to a velociraptor, and therefore commenting on her immense intelligence... It's important to note that these themes aren't overtly delivered to viewers, but instead threaded through the film; a painful undercurrent and reminder of just how far we've (thankfully) travelled since 1939.
If you've read any of my other reviews, you'll likely know about my bias against drama films, or at the very least, assume that I have one. However, this is a drama and this film is enjoyable. It's true, The Dig is depressing at times. I mean, Basil certainly doesn't help...particularly when he offers life advice: "We fail every day. There are just some things we can't succeed at. No matter how hard we try." Even if we ignore Basil's pessimism, it seems every single character is either unhappy or secretly unhappy at one point or another. However, the unhappiness that each character experiences, isn't unrealistic or out of proportion to what one might experience in "real life". Additionally, in amongst all of the drama and depression, The Dig offers moments of hope and beauty, and not just in the form of the gold found in the mound, but in moments that are touching. To be fair, it's by no means a perfectly happy ending. It's a realistic one. But this film manages to attack life's dramas, whilst simultaneously creating hope. It's beautiful, really. And also, I've never cried so hard at a kid riding a bike. Maybe I was having a bad day? Or maybe it was the most touching bike riding scene ever... you be the judge.
The visuals that are created with the camera, only support the story and the themes that director Simon Stone seeks to communicate. The colours in this film can certainly be described as muted. There's a lot of brown and beige and off-white. And when the characters wear something colourful, (outside of Robert - the child), they are still dressed in earthen tones. Sure, this suits the era, a time when people have suffered through the Great Depression and also stand on the precipice of World War II. However, it also makes the treasure revealed in the mound that much more colourful and exciting. At one point, early in the film, Edith reads a book on Tutankhamun and the colours used in the book exist in stark contrast to the colours in her life. It's a very real example of hope. Stone also creates many shots in which the people are positioned in the corners or along the edges of the frame; creating a feeling that they are miniscule in comparison to their surroundings. This helps to not only create the film's mood, but also to communicate something special and on theme. This film is about the discovery of ancient artefacts that have been buried in the ground for centuries. They have survived long past the skeleton that they were initially buried with. These shots, where people are framed around the edges, somehow remind us that life is fleeting, and that people are just a tiny fragment of the universe. The world moves on once we're gone...and now that I'm typing that... it seems silly that that's what I took away from the framing... but somehow, that's the feeling that I got.
Stone is also creative in terms of the way that sound is used. He uses both intense music that totally drowns out all noise and complete silence. These sound choices are used to further heighten tension in some of the film's most dramatic moments. And it works. He also uses voiceovers in a variety of scenes. There'll be a shot of a character or of several characters together, usually having a conversation. Rather than shooting the moment when they speak, he shoots the breaks in the conversation, but then adds the dialogue as voiceovers. Confusing to explain, but it somehow feels more intimate to watch.
The one thing that this film loses points for, is that I wanted to see some photos of the 1939 dig in the credits. I know. It's such a trope. It's a cliché. It might even be irritating. However, there is a whole character, Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn), who spends his time taking pictures of the Sutton Hoo dig site and the discoveries that are made there. He describes photography as a means "to keep what's vital from being lost". SO WHERE ARE THE VITAL PICTURES OF THE ACTUAL DIG? ARE THEY LOST? Look, I could probably just Google it, I suppose. This also seems like a super petty reason to mark down a film that I largely enjoyed. Yeah, what am I talking about? Go watch The Dig. It's on Netflix and it's beautiful.