The Dig

Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown

Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty

On the cusp of World War 2 a widow hires a chap to explore the massive dirt mounds on her estate. Ralph Fiennes superbly plays Basil Brown, a so-called excavator. That understates Brown’s polyglot expertise. His Suffolk accent (impeccable) and his gruff demeanor belie a calm understanding of history’s arc. Whether explaining a lunar eclipse or tamping his ubiquitous pipe, Brown has a quiet confidence that pervades the film.

Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan, fresh off her eponymous role in ‘Promising Young Woman’), on whose land the mounds mysteriously lie, juggles the challenges of an inquisitive fatherless son and the larger issue of the dig’s historical importance.

It quickly becomes clear that Brown alone can’t handle the excavation. Pretty hires a few more folks to help shift the dirt, and ominously more planes fly overhead. More officious experts are allowed to take charge of the dig, but neither Brown nor Pretty want anyone to lose sight of the greater meaning unfolding. The film subtly foretells the class breakdown that World War 2 accomplished; Brown begins to ignore the pompousness of those seemingly above his class.

A subplot involving a pair of the team is an effectively subtle juxtaposition; Lily James (memorable in ‘Baby Driver’) plays the distaff side of the couple.

The main plot is based on a true story, and the film ably rectifies an historical inaccuracy. It is no secret that the dig unearths artifacts not from the Roman Empire, not from the Vikings, but further back from the Anglo-Saxon era. As such, it is perfectly poignant but never overtly stated that the source of the artifacts is from the same place imminently at war with England.

The film is based on the novel by John Preston (who also wrote the novel ‘A Very English Scandal’ on which another great film was based). ‘The Dig’ is well-crafted and directed by Simon Stone. The production is magnificent, confidently evoking the 1939 setting. The piano-driven score by Stefan Gregory is alternately uplifting and melancholy, but nearly perfect.

Trailer available here


Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.