In The Dig, a British widow with an interest in archaeology wants to conduct an excavation on her land. To make her dream a reality, she hires an excavator known for his meticulous work.
Director Simon Stone adapts a novel by John Preston to tell the story of the 1939 excavation of Sutton Hoo, the site of medieval burial mounds where an Anglo-Saxon ship was found.
The distant past becomes shockingly present when the ship is unearthed, a piece of history to be exhumed and then memorialized.
The subject of excavation could have given the filmmakers an opportunity to connect us with the majestic erosions of time and forgotten people — if only for a moment or two.
Instead, director Stone and screenwriter Moira Buffini serve up a period piece that neither is tense nor sorrowful enough to transcend the status of a dry — or at least “dryish” — footnote, a strange outcome considering how often the story is drenched in Suffolk downpours.
Carey Mulligan plays Edith Pretty, the pallid careworn woman who owns the property on which the dig will take place.
Ralph Fiennes portrays Basil Brown, the man who conducts the dig at Edith's request. Edith also has a young son (Archie Barnes) who's interested in the dig and begins to bond with Brown.
Stone seldom brings the material to a dramatic boil. There's not much tension, for example, in wondering whether Edith will give her find to a local Suffolk museum or to the more prestigious British Museum.
The major issue involves attempts by the British museum -- under an esteemed archaeologist played by Ken Stott -- to take control of the project. Without formal credentials, Brown might be pushed aside.
A digressive subplot finds Lily James's Peggy working at the site with her husband Stuart (Ben Chaplin). James and Chapin portray a couple on shaky ground. Edith's cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn) arrives to help Brown and to become a potential love interest for the sexually deprived Peggy. Her husband regards marriage as a bit of a formality to cover his real sexual interests.
Mulligan gives a reserved performance compared to her work in A Promising Young Woman. Fiennes creates a man of the lower-classes who has developed and honed a specialty. Some of the people who've worked with Brown think he's "difficult," but for the most part he seems agreeable.
Stone adds a sorrowful twist involving Edith's lingering illness -- that and her fear about the looming war.
Although this period piece may not be lacquered, it lacks the kind of animating energy that would have made it more interesting and too many of its various plot threads feel undernourished. As it stands, the dig might be more interesting than most of the characters.
Perhaps that why when I think of the movie in retrospect, I almost hear the sound of trowels digging quietly and determinedly in the Suffolk soil.