On the eve of World War II, a British widow hires a self-taught archaeologist to dig up mysterious formations on her land, leading to a staggering find.
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“The Dig” is a previously untold real-life story of excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) who is hired by a wealthy widow Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) dying of cancer, to dig up her land in hopes of discovering something historic before World War II shuts the country and the project down.
The film is a delicate tale with multiple layers. As is the case with good drama, the characters are multiple and varied in in their subtleties and their complexities. Interestingly, one of the lead characters is not a sentient being, but a meadow in a Suffolk field in England. However, this field is no ordinary fallow area of grass, it is populated by large mounds – likely ancient burial sites. And this is the base of the titular ‘dig’.
The cinematography of rural England is absolutely outstanding, with superb lighting and wide shots. With a delightfully simple aesthetic and a stirring score, these aesthetic qualities combined with gripping performances and well-detailed historical context create a uniquely powerful impact on the viewing experience. All of the characters are also very well-developed through the calmly understated yet deeply sophisticated writing, and a clear sense of purpose is present in all of them.
The tensions between Edith and several individuals representing cultural institutions, such as the British Museum and Ipswich, about exactly what to do or where to send the discoveries from the excavation are also very gripping, creating an additional layer of depth to the story.
Ultimately, what is so unique about this film is that it is simple and elegant on some levels, but powerful and layered on others. Its ultimate meanings on the significance of culture, history, and collective sacrifice will be read differently from viewer to viewer; nonetheless, this a very powerful and well-made drama that clearly succeeds as both a character acting piece and a potent historical study.
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