The best way to describe Simon Stone’s film about the monumental discovery at Sutton Hoo in 1939 is through the metaphor of a dig itself. This is something that was definitely worth uncovering – you can tell there’s gold here. However, in approaching this project, Stone has dug too widely and only scratched the surface of the gold. At the heart of this, and only partially uncovered, is a wonderful film. It is a film about how the past exists in the present, about the nature of time and about a fascinating relationship between an excavator, a landowner and her son.
What we have here instead, is a film that wants to be about so much and, in the process, ends up being about so little. The central narrative, of a promising looking field turning into one of the country’s most important archaeological discoveries, is a brilliant one; but, The Dig (despite what its name might imply) refuses to focus on the dig. Instead, we have a poorly paced narrative that keeps adding characters and external dynamics, including clunkily handled romances, in order to spice up a story that did not need spicing up in the first place.
The beating heart of the film is in the interplay with three characters and the site. This is enough to evoke a lot of interesting themes and questions, while keeping the focus on history at the same time. However, the film also wants to chronicle the beginning of the Second World War, family squabbles and the aforementioned romance b-plot. This latter plot is very poorly executed and positions itself as the film’s emotional core; this is a real issue considering problematic edges and how uninvolving it is. The film, in general, spreads itself so thinly that it is hard to engage with it, which is such a shame as the central material is innately engaging.
This also is not helped by the narrative structure. The film clearly aims to cinematically deal with time, and how it slips away from us and defines us – and exists in every instant. Impermanence and preservation are key themes here, perfectly matching a story about uncovering an unknown past. These ideas are laudable; the execution is not. What we have are lots of disjointed scenes with overlapping dialogue; a frequent directorial choice is to have simple conversations happen but, rather than shooting them as conversations, we hear the characters talk while we watch them do other things. Yes, it shows how time is always moving but it also feels very strange. The whole idea is that things are impermanent but the result is that everything feels unimportant; this aims to be a film about preserving the past in the present but the actual approach makes everything feel ancillary.
However, there is some visual poetry here. Malick’s Days of Heaven is the clear visual inspiration for these beautiful vistas captured with elegant crane shots and sweeping handheld camera. To be overly critical, it feels like a bit of a pale imitation of Malick’s work, lacking the visual consistency. A lot of this is very beautiful; a lot of it is not. For every silhouetted landscape, or gold tinged field moving in the breeze, you get an awkward angle or a weirdly obscured shot. Also, any moment the film has to move towards mild peril – which it does at times – the direction cannot handle this change of tone or pace. An early unfortunate event becomes farcical due to its presentation, with laborious slow-mo and invasive closeups making it feel, at best, theatrical. These moments need a sense of grit and dirt, and need to work viscerally, and this light and breezy film is unable to convey that tone.
The issues here come down to writing and direction. Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan lead an excellent cast populated with solid performances, that do elevate the material, but they are consistently undercut by the filmmaking. It is all too familiar, to restrained and every choice dulls the impact where it should be accentuated. There are just so many available narratives in this story and the film needed to pick one. A good excavator needs to work smartly and prioritise; The Dig tries to take on every available story and ends up telling none. There are lovely moments, and real promise, but any glint of gold is undone by shoddy excavation. This film will promote great conversations and scrapes at excellent questions and issues. I just wish this thinking was done on screen as opposed to being relegated to off of it.