In my wildest dreams I never imagined attending a film premiere – let alone in Lockdown 3.0.
But that’s exactly what has happened! Last evening, I found myself (along with 300 others) logging online to watch the exclusive online premiere of Netflix’s new period drama – THE DIG, starring Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes.
Almost as equally astonishing is the subject of the film. At first glance an early 20th Century archaeological dig doesn’t sound like the kind of story of which blockbuster movies are made – but all history buffs know the best stories come straight out of the history books.
In a nutshell, The Dig tells the story of the discovery of the now legendary Sutton Hoo burial site in 1939, just months before the outbreak of World War Two. Its based on the 2007 novel of the same name by John Preston. Period drama stalwart Carey Mulligan (An Education, The Great Gatsby) stars as Edith Pretty, the widowed and terminally-ill English landowner who hires the slightly gruff and self taught amateur archaeologist Basil Brown – played by Ralph Fiennes (Schindler’s List, The English Patient) – to excavate several unusual mounds she has on her property.
This film is essentially about two pasts. It opens with Basil travelling across the Suffolk countryside (which is basically the fifth main character in this film) to meet Edith to discuss the possible excavation. As they wonder among the mounds, speculating what can be inside, Basil utters the line “It speaks dunnit? The past.” With those words, I knew straight away this film would speak straight to the heart of history lovers.
As Basil starts his excavations, and begins to make exciting discoveries, the local museum gets a whiff of what’s going on and soon the British Museum arrives to stick their oar in. Cue the entry of new characters, including Lily James (Cinderella, Rebecca) as the sole female archaeologist Peggy Preston.
Around the same time Edith’s cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn) arrives to help out. Cue the obligatory romantic storyline, where the unhappily married Peggy and soon-to-be RAF pilot Rory cast wayward glances at each other, until Rory’s call-up forces them both to give in to their feelings. This subplot was the only criticism I had of the film. The director, Simon Stone, did such a superb job telling the story of Edith, Basil and the excavation that this love story felt surplus to requirements at some points. However towards the end of the film the storyline did redeem itself, and there are some romantic scenes shot in the most beautiful evening light.
My favourite part of the film focused on the excavation of the treasures that were unearthed during the dig. Apparently, the director had buried the recreated props in the ground, so the actors had no idea where they were and had to dig around trying to find them like a true archaeological dig. When someone unearths an artefact on the screen you therefore really believe the joy and surprise on their face. It was moving watching them one-by-one uncover items that connected them to an even more distant past.
Time and History
Some of my favourite parts of the movie were the little touches that appealed to me as a history lover. I’m hoping these are deliberate – because if so, they are very clever – but I have yet to find confirmation they were artistic choices made by the director.
In one scene, the characters watch on helplessly as a fighter plane struggles through the air before crashing into the nearby estuary. Johnny Flynn’s character dives in to help save the pilot, but its too late and instead the fallen soldier’s body is winched out of the water into a waiting boat. There is a brief shot of the boat making its way back to land, the body of the pilot laid out on the deck, eerily reminiscent of the layout of a boat burial. Likewise, there is a scene of Edith lying in bed, struggling with her illness. Shot from above, her rounded body, curled in on itself, reminded me of a Beaker burial.
Time is overwhelmingly one of the key themes of this movie. The Spitfires that regularly fly over the excavation are a reminder of the quickly-approaching war. Time is running out to complete the dig, but time is also running out both for the terminally-ill Edith and her cousin Rory who awaits his call-up. As Basil and the archaeologists unearth the ship burial – a moment in time – Rory captures those moments with his camera. They all know time is short and must be seized – and in this respect I think it will resonate with many of us struggling with effects the pandemic has had on our lives.
This emphasis on the present and the past is offset by Edith’s son Robert (portrayed by the talented Archie Barnes) who is obsessed with the stars and tales of the future. All these elements serve to remind us that time and history never really end. As Basil says in one scene “From the first human hand put on a cave wall we are part of something continuous.. and we don’t really die”.
I am by no means a film critic, but the quality of the acting was exquisite. Carey Mulligan is truly one of the best actors of our generation. Her nuanced performance left me on the verge of tears at points. Ralph Fiennes more than ably demonstrated why he is considered an acting powerhouse, confidently playing the type of character that has the potential to be reduced to a caricature (seriously, why hasn’t he had a knighthood yet?).
Johnny Flynn’s performance drew me in in such an understated way, I didn’t even realise I was invested in his character until I found myself yelling ‘You idiot’ at my screen as he jumped into the water. It says something about the quality of film when I picked out Lily James as the weakest actor, but I feel this was in part due to the weak romantic storyline.
A Very Traditional Period Drama
The Dig is very much what I would term a traditional heritage drama, in the vein of Howard’s End or even the more recent Downton Abbey – all quintessentially English, set in the early 20th century and full of nostalgia to the point of romanticism (the beautiful landscape shots, haunting curlew calls and disconnected dialogue combine to create this dreamy effect in The Dig). The obligatory friendship across the class divide which appears in so many of these dramas is also one of the main storylines of this film.
I must admit I was a bit surprised when I first saw this type of film on the Netflix schedule. Over the past few years, Netflix has really lead the field in terms of productions that have challenged our expectations about what we want to see in a period drama ( see Hollywood, Bridgerton, Self Made and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom). The Dig stood out like a sore (tweed-bedecked and tea-drinking) thumb.
However, I needn’t have worried. The Dig is another example of why Netflix has taken the BBC’s period drama crown. The Dig is no doubt a traditional period drama, but it is pretty perfectly executed. And at a time when we are turning to the comfort of nostalgia to escape the uncertainty of the pandemic, I expect it will be well-received. Netflix has realised sometimes you cant beat the reassurance of familiarity.
The Dig is released on Netflix on the 29th of January 2021.
Like this post? Then check out my guide to what period dramas to watch on Netflix right now, and my Hisdoryan period drama guide – the only online guide to new period drama releases in the UK.