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'The Dig' Should Be Left Buried

Larry Horricks/Netflix

The new movie, The Dig, centers on a famous archaeologic site in England, just before the start of World War II. For KUNC film critic Howie Movshovitz, who teaches film and television at CU Denver, the film should have dug a little deeper.

Simon Stone’s The Dig starts well enough. In 1939, an upper-class woman, Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) owns an estate with a number of large mounds dotting the fields. Something might be buried in them, so she hires a man who calls himself an “excavator” named Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to investigate. He’s got no formal education; he learned archaeology from his father– who knew what he was doing. Mr. Brown and Mrs. Pretty are a good, match – both think seriously about the meaning of the past.

Together, they uncover maybe the greatest archaeological find in Britain. The site is called Sutton Hoo. The mound that Brown excavated held a 6th or 7th century ship burial with swords, a magnificent, bejeweled helmet, and many other treasures. The discovery changed the understanding of British history in the early middle ages because the site was of Anglo-Saxon culture, and not Viking as assumed. The exhibit in the British Museum is a full-out WOW.

Right off the bat, The Dig has two good characters, two remarkable actors and a great series of events. Yet the film fritters it all away. Halfway through, it’s still unclear what the picture’s about, and the second half clouds the matter more. These two people of different social classes in class-strangled Britain have a profound connection. But what might be a fascinating story about how shared interests break through the class barrier, goes nowhere. As if the film loses its map.

The picture opens a gnarly relationship between Mr. Brown and the pompous archaeologist from the British Museum. He’s contemptuous toward Brown, which is apparently true, but the movie wanders off in that direction and never finds its way back. Another of the archaeologists – a stiff colorless man – has a wife, also a trained archaeologist, with lots of life in her. She begins to fancy the nephew of Mrs. Pretty, and you wonder why the movie yet again loses its way.

But the big regret is what the film does not do with Mr. Brown and Mrs. Pretty. There’s so much possibility in that pairing, and the fundamental images of excavating and uncovering the past are just ripe for the picking. Besides that, richness, the Sutton Hoo ship burial was uncovered just as World War II was about to erupt, and that meant the tiny crew had to work very fast to get things out of the ground, into a safe place, and the site itself had to be covered and protected from the bombings about to begin.

But The Dig remains bland; even visually it’s listless. For a subject so promising in context, director Simon Stone shoots in a short focus, so the area looks fuzzy, the wondrous place where all of this material could play out. Even when the stunning helmet is uncovered, the picture barely shows it. The movie’s shot from all sorts of odd angles – it strains to be artsy, instead of showing the great wonders it has right there. What a waste.

Yet in all this mess, Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes are still magnificent. They’re both masters of subtle, telling gestures and postures. Fiennes looks pared down to raw essentials, a modest working-class guy of tremendous intelligence and barely hidden but deep feeling. Mulligan’s Mrs. Pretty has beauty and strength beneath her plain exterior and an illness that saps her energy. You long for this relationship – which is not about romance or sex – to develop. And as you see the film slowly abandon these gems, just as it abandons the wonder of the archaeological treasures, you feel yourself grabbing for it, as if to say to the movie, “Don’t leave them.” But it does. And you’re left feeling empty.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.