Initially, the main subject of “The Dig,” adapted from John Preston’s 2007 novel of the same name, which was based on real events, is dirt, and what may lie beneath it. But for most of its duration, its centers of attention switch to living, breathing human beings: the people who own the land the dirt is on, the ones who burrow under it, and those who lay claim to what might be hidden below. Before the film is over, plenty of attention has also been given to some people who have been gone, for many centuries.
Though this appears to be a tale of archeology and treasure and museums that are feuding over the possibility of valuable spoils beneath a grouping of mysterious mounds in Suffolk, England, it’s the people who are far more interesting.
Set in 1939, the film opens with the widow and single mother Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) hiring the local freelance archeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to figure out what those heaping mounds at her estate, Sutton Hoo, are all about. When she and her husband bought the place years ago, they’d meant to do just that. But he died, she was consumed with grief, and only now is she getting around to it.
It’s a small, quiet film, beautiful to watch due to its expansive, rural surroundings, appealing to listen to for its plainspoken, heartfelt dialogue, wonderful to spend some time with because every actor completely embodies his or her character, convincingly bringing them to life.
Mulligan presents Edith as a tired, worrisome person. Her doctor tells her she’s on her way to an ulcer. She tells everyone around her, including her young son Robert, that she has heartburn. But her health problems are much bigger, and part of her worrying has to do with what will happen to Robert if she’s not around.
Basil, as played by Fiennes, is a complicated man. He’s well-educated, has many interests, and is admired by and pushed in the right direction by his wife May (Monica Dolan), but he has a problem with self-esteem. When Edith brings him on as an archeologist, he insists that he’s only an excavator. He loves his work, but he’s also alone a lot, smoking his pipe, lost in silent thought.
The people around them in the film are of less significance to the story, but add a great deal to its atmosphere. Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) an archeologist from the British Museum, is a stuffy, unpleasant man who, once Basil has found the beginnings of something special under one mound, pushes his way into a site supervisor position, regularly demeaning Basil. Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn), Edith’s younger cousin, is invited by her to assist on the dig, and eagerly shows up, but he’s concerned with impending threats of war (remember, this is 1939). Two other experts arrive at the site - the married couple of Stuart and Peggy Piggott (Ben Chaplin and Lily James) - but much of their screen time is devoted to the shakiness of their marriage. Robert (Archie Barnes), as fond of making up stories as he is listening to those told by Basil, seems to be the only truly happy person in the film.
So, what’s under the mound that Basil is digging up? At first, it’s seen as the remains of a very old ship. Maybe a Viking ship. Possibly one that served as the grave of a king, which was dragged from the sea for a send-off. If that’s correct, then there might also be a burial chamber within the ship, and who knows what could be found in that, or what it could mean in a historical context.
This is a film in which a lot is going on but not much happens. Words take precedence over action, although a cave-in at the site is loaded with tension. And war is definitely in the air, or at least on the airwaves, as radio broadcasts mention that more men are needed for the RAF and that Germany has just invaded Poland.
Things get gloomy, things turn exciting and, in the end, there’s cause for celebration. It’s got the feeling and sensibility of the sort of fare seen on “Masterpiece,” but - taking nothing away from “Masterpiece” - is a tad higher in quality and production value.
“The Dig” premieres on Netflix on Jan. 29.
Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Moira Buffin; directed by Simon Stone
With Ralph Fiennes, Carey Mulligan, Ken Stott, Lily James, Johnny Flynn
This article originally appeared on Taft Midway Driller: Movie review: ‘The Dig’ artfully tells the true tale of a search for ancient treasure in 1930s Britain