If Carey Mulligan’s showstopping performance in the provocative and very much of our times psychological thriller “Promising Young Woman” is the cinematic equivalent of a brilliant electric guitar solo, her work in the low-key, period-piece Netflix drama “The Dig” is like an unplugged performance — on the opposite end of the spectrum, but still damn good and nearly as resonant. What a gift we have with this opportunity to appreciate Mulligan’s range in these two films arriving within weeks of one another.
Based on a 2007 novel by John Preston that was inspired by the incredible true story of one of the most significant British archaeological finds ever, “The Dig” maintains a dignified and restrained approach, even when the material gets a little salacious in the form of not one but two “forbidden” romances. Melodramatic relationship developments aside, this is primarily about the well-off widow Edith Pretty (Mulligan) and the skilled but relatively unschooled excavator and amateur archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), who in 1939 is hired by Edith to poke around the mounds of earth on the property of her house at Sutton Hoo. (Stories had been circulating for years about potential treasure buried beneath the land.)
With some of the location filming taking place in Suffolk, not far from the actual dig site, director Simon Stone provides splendid visuals — the rolling hills are beautiful, even though it always seems to be raining or about to rain — while the stoic Basil goes about his business, often accompanied by Edith’s precocious young son Robert (Archie Barnes), who shares Basil’s fascination with astronomy and sees an obvious father figure in this good, solid, upstanding man. For a time, “The Dig” is a quiet little gem of a drama with only a few characters, but after Basil uncovers what appears to be an intact, seventh century Anglo-Saxon ship with far-ranging historical and cultural implications, Sutton Hoo gets quite crowded with new characters and a myriad of subplots, most examining the classism and sexism of the era.
Basil’s former Ipswich Museum employers (Peter McDonald and Paul Ready) try to muscle him aside and claim the discovery, but THEY’RE soon big-footed by the insufferably condescending Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) from the British Museum, who declares the site under the control of her Majesty’s whatever in the interest of the national cultural whatever, but thanks for your time, Basil! Meanwhile, Edith’s charismatic and dashing cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn) shows up as if dropped in from a World War II movie; he’s enlisted in the Royal Air Force and can’t wait to be called to duty. And let’s not forget Lily James bringing her sunny presence to the countryside as Peggy, who is married to the young archaeologist Stuart (Ben Chaplin), who seems a lot more interested in hanging with the chaps in the pub after hours than with devoting any marital affection to Lily. And we’re just now getting around to Edith’s persistent chest pains and failing health, uh-oh.
That’s a lot — maybe too much — to be wedged into a story about two fine people in Edith and Basil who come to form an ironclad friendship after they make an amazing discovery. Of course, they want to share it with the world and they will share it with the world, but in some ways, it’ll always be their thing and theirs alone.