Simon Stone's direction and strong performances elevate this biopic
It seems to be a great moment for biopics about forgotten archeologists. Ammonite (2020) helped bring to light the great findings of Mary Anning in the field of ocean fossils. Netflix has now produced the film The Dig (2021) detailing the crucial archeological findings of Basil Brown, which were groundbreaking in helping understand early British civilizations.
The Dig is set in 1939 at the dawn of the Second World War. In the county of Suffolk, England the wealthy widow Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) employs local archeologist (or as he likes to call himself: “excavator”) Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to dig into several mounds on her property. Village legend has it that the mounds are places of buried treasure, but no archeological expedition had been carried out until then. Given that the British government is focused on the impending war, rationing funds and men, Basil Brown must make do with a motely and unexperienced crew plunge into history.
The Dig is only the second feature of Australian director Simon Stone. The up-and-coming filmmaker had been making the waves on the stage with a truly original adaptation of Euripides’ “Medea.” Coming onto the screen for the first time in six years, Stone brings with him his characteristic originality. However, while The Dig proves to have some incredibly inventive and effective stylistic applications, they differ from the blunter aspects of Stone’s stage work. In “Medea,” Stone turned the entire set into a blank void, utilizing cameras to project certain aspects of the live play on stage, making a smart comment on the reliability of different forms of narration. A similar play with narration happens in The Dig, though so subtle many viewers might miss it.
The Dig has the type of emotional and stylistic restraint that has almost become a cliché of British period dramas. Stone, however, spruces up the genre by having a rather surprising, but mostly unnoticeable switch in protagonist half-way through the film. Basil Brown seems to be at the center of the first act of the film, and viewers might feel the film start to tread into a familiar territory regarding regarding a potential romance and drama. Stone, however, slyly weans of Brown – still keeping him present in the narrative – and switches his focus to Peggy Piggott (Lily James) a young female archeologist who joins the work in Suffolk. This switch unwittingly keeps viewers on the edge of their seats, intrigued by the plopping of a new character and mysteries on screen. This narrative choice prevents The Dig from becoming predictable or dragging in any way. This attempt at differentiating from similar period pieces is aided by the dialogue, written by Moira Buffini (adapted from John Preston’s book). Buffini is able to craft seeming throwaway dialogue, that nevertheless provides a calming depth and individuality to each character.
The narrative itself doesn’t stand out as anything quite inventive regarding how it is structured or sequenced. There is a certain humility in that respect, focusing on providing a clear story and a crucial emotional respect to the characters. Stone doesn’t shy away from playing with style, however, keeping himself from drowning out the story, but experimenting with techniques, nevertheless. I was particularly taken with how Stone would have a conversation playing on voice-over, while characters were portrayed as silent on screen. This editing ploy has been used in film before, helping highlight something that the characters are leaving “unsaid” or else hiding. Such an editing choice can prove disconcerting to viewers and puts a lot of weight on actors and the strength of their performances. Stone is unafraid of abusing this editing technique, and it works to perfection, juxtaposing the conversational dialogue with the non-verbal and deeply emotional one displayed on screen. In many ways he is asking his viewers to do their own “digging” on screen, challenging us to brush away at the truths hidden inside the characters.
The benefit of having a talented set of performers is that the character can have a truly unique dimension. Ralph Fiennes is spectacular (as always), donning the complex feeling of inferiority that Basil has regarding his lack of education and elite recognition. Fiennes is able to demonstrate the clash of self-taught and hard background with a successful rural English accent and his subtle use of body language. Mulligan is back to playing a role she seems to have been type-cast in: of a period-tortured, silent woman. It’s the type that she’s excelled at in Far from the Madding Crowd (2015), Drive (2011), or Wildlife (2018). Perhaps by being accustomed to seeing her in such role, many will not appreciate the difficulty of her undertaking; though perhaps her metamorphosis in Promising Young Woman (2020) will lead viewers to admire her versatility. Lily James was incredibly strong in the film as well, especially taking into account the heavy narrative focus on her in the second act. The Dig might have provided the British actress with the juiciest and most challenging role I’ve seen her do so far, and it proves to deliver her best performance yet.
The Dig brings about a delicate and passionate exploration on the present nature of history and of human beings’ relation with time and each other. Just as a major historical war was about to take place, these characters embark on monumental discoveries; it is a display with such a poetic contrast that if it weren’t true it would be tacky. Stone doesn’t shy away from the philosophical aspects that may have scared off other directors. He showcases a true love and respect of history and the work historians and archeologists do. The Dig makes the case for the importance that our appreciation and knowledge in our history can have in our own present moment and sense of identity. In the current times of facts and history being twisted for ideological benefit, the need for discoveries, history, and truth to be brought to light and appreciated is more crucial than ever.
In the end, The Dig proves to be a rather effective biopic. Stone’s return to the big screen proves to add a spritely originality to the film that helps it stave off the categorization of “another British period film.” The dedication to crafting the emotional dimensions of each character, added with an inventive editing and remarkable performances, make The Dig a rather affecting and fulfilling watch.