Basil Brown finally gets his due in Simon Stone’s sophomore film “The Dig” starring Ralph Fiennes as the self-taught excavator who, on the cusp of WWII, discovered one of the most significant archaeological British finds. Brown unearthed a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon ship on the Suffolk property of widow Edith Pretty played by Carey Mulligan. The imperturbable film holds a treasure trove of cinematic delights for the viewer including graceful performances by Mulligan and Fiennes in this reimagined true story based on the 2007 novel by John Preston.
Think of “The Dig” as an arthouse version of Indiana Jones with a mound of dirt substituting for a temple of doom. I know that doesn’t sound exciting, but the period drama, which takes place in 1939, isn’t concerned with thrills and chills, its focus is on hills with no frills.
Fiennes delivers a restrained performance speaking in a soothing Suffolk accent as the self-educated Basil, a farmer’s son whose interest in archeology as a young boy led to a career working on a contract basis for the Ipswich Museum and the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology. To make sure he nailed the accent, Fiennes hired a local Suffolk musician named Jay Ducker to be his personal assistant during the shoot. Ducker became the actor’s unofficial dialect coach, giving him input in between takes.
Following an electrifying performance in “Promising Young Woman” — which should garner an Oscar nomination and hopefully a win — Carey Mulligan transitions back into refinement mode to play wealthy landowner and widow Edith Pretty who’s raising a young son named Robert (Archie Barnes). Mulligan has built a career on playing empowering headstrong women. As Edith, she is a shrewd businesswoman who doesn’t let compassion cloud her judgment. Upon meeting Basil for the first time, Edith tries to lowball his two pounds a week salary, but she quickly discovers that despite any formal training, Basil knows his worth and threatens to walk if she doesn’t agree to his fee.
Edith also discovers that Basil is a humble man. “Mr. Brown is an archeologist,” she exclaims while introducing him to her son Robert, but Basil replies, “No, I’m an excavator,” a title he prefers despite his experience in the field. It’s also a way to appease his colleagues from citing his lack of a formal education. As the story evolves, Basil becomes a father figure to Robert, and the two share a love of astronomy.
At the center of “The Dig” are the numerous ancient mounds on Edith’s estate in Sutton Woo. Curious about what may be buried underneath, “What are they?” she asks, causing Basil to speculate, “We’re standing in someone’s graveyard I reckon.” At first, the mounds were thought to be Viking in origin, but once Basil begins excavating the site, he discovers a seventh-century trove of treasures including the imprint of an Anglo-Saxon ship complete with a burial chamber. It is believed to be the final resting place of King Rædwald of East Anglia.
Based on the novel by John Preston with a screenplay by Moira Buffini, “The Dig” has all the trappings of a sweeping love story including rich cinematography by Mike Eley who captures the beautiful Suffolk countryside complete with vast fields, and a majestic score by Stefan Gregory in his feature debut. The only thing missing is an actual romance between Edith and Basil, who is happily married to supportive wife May (Monica Dolan). Instead, the two develop a beautiful platonic friendship.
The supporting cast includes Lily James and Ben Chaplin as married archeologists. Sadly, for newlyweds, there isn’t much happening in the romance department. Chaplin’s character Stuart seems to be enamored with male colleague Brailsford (Eamon Farren), but wait there’s hunky Johnny Flynn as Edith’s nephew Rory, a photographer documenting the archeological dig whose camera seems to be fixated on James’ Peggy.
“The Dig” is an enjoyable British drama with fine performances by Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes. The serene atmosphere enhanced by the picturesque cinematography makes it pleasing to watch. Basil Brown finally gets the recognition he deserves.
Now showing in theaters. Premieres Friday on Netflix.