A quick methadone hit for anyone still experiencing Merchant-Ivory withdrawal symptoms, The Dig (streaming on Netflix starting January 29th) is a throwback to a bygone era in more ways than one. The year is 1939, the countryside is English, the upper lips are most definitely stiff. Britain stands on the verge of war, as the RAF planes constantly buzzing past can attest. Behind a large manor in Suffolk, there are a number of jutting, earthen mounds that suggest the possibility of ancient artifacts buried beneath the soil. Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), a widow of some taste and renown, has hired a local named Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to help her locate any potential findings. The gentleman is not an archaeologist, as he’s quick to point out — he’s merely an amateur “excavator” with a deep knowledge of history, a shyness and modesty in his manner, and a seemingly endless supply of dirt-specked tweed suit jackets.
Edith feels that the land on her estate may be home to a Viking burial ground; Basil thinks there’s something even older lurking under there. As various posh accents bump up against working-class ones, they eventually do discover quite a trove of corroded, centuries-old flotsam and jetsam, which attracts the attention of no less then the British museum. It will eventually be known as the Sutton Hoo Treasure, and were this not lifted from the real-life discovery of a major historical find, you’d have hoped that this dig might also unleash a few disturbed spirits, ready to turn Edith’s estate into a gothic haunted house. No such luck, alas. The only specters here are the Ghosts of Miramax Prestige-Projects Past.
And The Dig really does feel like a movie out of its time, as if the past 20 years of filmmaking hadn’t really happened, it was still normal for movie stars to mope around in class-conscious 20th-century finery instead of capes, and shows like Downton Abbey hadn’t come round to fill the Brit period-melodrama gap. It’d feel like something extracted from a boutique studio’s vault sealed in the 1990s even if the star of The English Patient wasn’t involved. Incidents pile up on one another like sedimentary rock layers — there is a cave-in, a plane crash, someone has a bad ticker (damn rheumatic fever aftereffects!), furtive glances exchanged between numerous parties, an illicit romance or two. Supporting characters drift in and out of the picture, from Edith’s young son to Brown’s neglected yet supportive wife. The arrival of a museum muckety-muck (The Hobbit’s Ken Stott) and two married archeologists (Ben Chaplin and Lily James), along with Edith’s handsome photographer cousin (Stardust’s Johnny Flynn), complicate things further. A lot happens, with curiously little effect.
Yet every so often, the film seems to hint that there’s something else happening beneath its exquisitely detailed, meticulously re-created production design — a restlessness buried right under its familiar based-on-a-true-story surface. Director Simon Stone and cinematographer Mike Eley keep nudging things gently into Terrence Malick territory, letting the camera roam behind and beside people in fields, or employing a wider-than-usual lens to give things a pleasantly unsteady, slightly off feel. (Someone’s been paying extremely close attention to the Emmanuel Lubezki method of drifting transcendentalism — Chivo touches abound here.) Several compositions involving natural light, lens flare, and negative space — notably a shot of Fiennes lighting a pipe in the frame’s corner while clear blue sky dominates the rest — are breathtaking. A sequence in which he sits by a marsh’s edge and watches a ghostly ship pass by, reminiscent of what he’ll eventually uncover, is enough to give you goose bumps.
Whether these aesthetic touches are there to serve a larger purpose besides breaking up the narrative monotony, however, isn’t really clear. They could be insinuating that the past is an ever-changing state, constantly rocking the present even as history’s still unfolding, one Churchill radio address at a time. They could be positing that this simple man, steadfast in his devotion, may be in touch with the divine as he pushes back the dirt. They could be Malickisms for their own sake, or run-of-the-mill fandom homages emanating from behind the camera. Who can say, when there are so many windows to stare out of and vintage waistcoats to model, so many plot points to shuffle.
There’s not a single thing wrong with these kinds of red-carpet–friendly U.K. dramas, of course — if anything, The Dig may remind you how satisfying it was, once upon a time, to sit through so much decor-meets-repression cinema after sifting through the remains of your day. It’s simply that this film eventually sputters to its final justice-served disclaimer (it took decades for Brown to get credit for being the one who found these ancient totems) having given you little more than multiple servings of weak English tea. Even Fiennes and Mulligan, class acts both, start to seem bored. This is a passable substitute for the real thing. It could have burrowed so much deeper.