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More Than Buried Treasure is Discovered in ‘The Dig’

Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes find common ground in this quiet and atmospheric Netflix original.

We’ve all had plenty of time this past year to do some needed (or unwelcome) self-reflection.

Netflix’s newest release – The Dig – adopts this practice to handle it’s core characters’ complexities with careful insight, not unlike how archeologists might approach a dig site.

The story takes place in 1939 England where widowed landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) hires a self-taught excavator named Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to dig up the burial mounds on her grounds.

The mounds are artificial hills of earth and stones that were built over the remains of the dead, and can hold significant artifacts.

The last thing Brown and his scrappy team of diggers were expecting to find, though, was an Anglo-Saxon ship fit for the burial of a king.

What started as an independent endeavor by Mrs. Pretty attracts closer interest from representatives of the British Museum who lay a claim on a find of this significance. What they are unprepared to deal with, however, is Mrs. Pretty’s reliance on Brown and her faith in his work; even if it’s not up to their lofty standards.

Their relationship works well thanks to intimate and intricate work on the part of Mulligan and Fiennes. You soak up every moment with them; whether it’s subliminally romantic, or strictly business.

In one dramatic moment, Brown is consumed by a collapsed trench. Mrs. Pretty frantically starts to dig and calls for help. Household staff arrive and use their hands like trowels; his limbs slowly start to appear as if he’s a long-lost artifact being unearthed for the first time.

They understand each other more after, and their connection is solidified further by Edith’s young son Robert’s idolization of Brown.

When more workers are needed to help uncover the ship, Mrs. Pretty calls upon her cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn) to help, and a team hired by the museum arrives with Peggy (Lily James) in tow.

Their attraction is the “epic” romance of the film, but not the most interesting. It feels like an aside when the appearance of a worried Mulligan is far more gripping and relevant to the themes of the film: human complexity and uncertainty (especially on the cusp of World War II).

Director Simon Stone helps employ effective techniques to translate all of this.

Towards the beginning of the film when Mrs. Pretty is taking Brown to the site, there’s a lot of shaky camera that makes it feel like we’re in a documentary. This forces the audience to take in the wide-open fields and barren landscape that so softy speaks to possibility.

Stone also uses voiceovers to command attention on the characters’ expressions at a given moment. Whether it’s Mrs. Pretty grappling with her illness, or Brown connecting to her son.

The burial mounds are an obvious representation of death that give way for more personal connections to grief.

The Dig and it’s characters suggest there are just some things you can’t cover up – like love and loss – no matter how much dirt you use.

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