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The Dig to End All Digs
The Dig is a dramatic re-telling of a true story about, well, digging. More specifically, an excavator played by Ralph Fiennes is conscripted to dig up a burial site on a wealthy woman's estate, played by Carey Mulligan, but finds more than they bargained for. Much to their surprise, the dig turns up an old wooden ship from the Dark Ages called Sutton Hoo. This project also turns out being a team effort, and more dangerous than they could have ever anticipated. Set in the backdrop of World War 2, or at least, the very beginnings of the war, the story also features dramatizations of men going off to fight the battles for the British RAF. Additionally, it portrays the struggles of actually going through the process of the dig. It presents much of the troubles excavators would have experienced during this time, with lack of tools and technology enjoyed by excavators today.
The performances are by far the strongest aspect of this film. Featuring terrific A-list actors such as Ralph Fiennes, Carey Mulligan, and Lily James, they all portray their characters with what I believe to be proficiency, if not complete historical accuracy. The script is fine, and the direction passable, but the performances lift this up to be above what would normally be a middle of the road film. Ralph Fiennes gives a more layered performance to a character who could have just as easily been overtly gruff and one dimensional. Carey Mulligan gives a beautifully understated performance to a fascinating portrait of a true to life character. Lily James gives, in my estimation, one of the best performances of her career with her brilliant emotional range. Quite frankly, she didn't have to go that hard. But, she did it for us. She is a national treasure who must be protected at all costs, much like the excavated wooden ship in this film (and real life).
The film is surprisingly remarkably well shot. The cinematography is gorgeous, highlighting the natural beauty of valleys, vistas, and vast bodies of water. The geography of the region is brilliantly photographed throughout the film's entirety, almost to a fault. It seems that much of the film was centered around luscious views thanks to the wonderful cinematography, but this can also work against the film as dazzling us with beautiful cinematography is nice and all, but it can't cover up narrative faults or hiccups. That aside, the cinematography was always quite nice to look at. The way it used natural lighting and close-ups with the characters really highlighted the intimate nature of the story and the relationship they had with nature itself. Granted, this did halt the film's narrative momentum at times, which jumbled the pacing. There were definitely times when I was bored, and the pacing had much to do with that. I have no issue with a film being patient in its narrative speed, but I did feel the runtime was padded by the beautiful albeit not always necessary nature shots. Often times, it felt like a Terrence Malick film with the way it lost itself in the showcasing of the cinematography and overuse of closeups on key characters.
The True Story
The story being told was, of course, one of the film's primary strengths. More often than not, when a story like this needs to be told, it doesn't need to separate itself from the pack - the story itself will do that already. But, admittedly, this is a dangerous way of thinking. Perhaps, the filmmaking and performances were the aspects to set this film apart from the rest. As I mentioned before, the film did not do too terribly much to elevate this true story over other biopics or otherwise. What I will give it is that it did seem true to the characters, although dramatizations tend to embellish. There was a scene in which Ralph Fiennes' character was trapped beneath the dirt from the dig, and it didn't seem plausible what happened. Granted, this could have been something that actually, truly happened. Additionally, an RAF pilot crashed into a nearby body of water and the characters fled to the scene of the crash and attempted to save the pilot. Again, this felt like an over-embellishment - but could very well have been verified as cold hard factual portrayal. As we know, truth is stranger than fiction. What was amazing to me (spoilers) was that they had the wherewithal to re-cover (re-bury) the wooden ship after they very nearly had excavated the whole thing. They did this in preparation of what they thought was to come from the War. Preserving this bit of history was exceedingly important to them - and they knew it would not have been to the Nazis, had they made it across the Channel. Overall, I felt it was a solid portrayal of this true story, but it felt like there was just something intangible missing. I couldn't put my finger on it, but it just didn't totally work for me.
All in all, The Dig is a solid retelling of a very fascinating piece of history I was ignorant to. It was interesting to see such a story be brought to the big screen (thanks, Netflix), but at the end of the day, it didn't bring enough to it to push it over the top to edge out other run of the mill biopics/historical period pieces. The performances and the cinematography certainly make this a viewing experience worth your time, but I would never think to revisit this one by any stretch of the imagination. Ralph Fiennes, Carey Mulligan, and Lily James do give it their all, but it's just not a great enough script nor did it have any direction to give it the dramatic or narrative heft it needed to rise to the next level. The true story is a good one, no doubt, but at times it just felt too embellished or melodramatic for me to take it as seriously I would have liked or needed to. Overall, I'm certainly not upset I gave it my time and energy, but I do feel there was something else missing from it in order to give it that profound catharsis or transcendent cinematic experience. However, all this being said, I do feel that Lily James is an actor who deserves more than just a passable or come-and-go January streaming release such as this. She gives this her everything, and she didn't need to go that hard. But, that's just who she is as an actor. And for that, and many other reasons, she must be protected at all costs.
Painfully Average/run of the mill
How did this get made
The Dig is a Netflix original drama an is available to stream on Netflix now.