Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan out-Brit themselves in gentle Netflix drama The Dig : Review

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Leah Greenblatt
·3 min read
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LARRY HORRICKS/NETFLIX © 2021

One the eve of WWII, a aristocratic young widow (Carey Mulligan) enlists a local excavator (Ralph Fiennes) to find out what's under the large mysterious mounds that dot her rural Suffolk property. Are they Viking burial grounds, or something even older?

Based on fact, The Dig (on Netflix Friday) has the familiar, comforting contours of the kind of prestige British drama that tends to meet itself at the corner of melancholy and cozy — a whole movie manifested from mist-shrouded fields, tweedy elbows, and sublimated feelings.

Fiennes, putting on the flatter consonants and newsboy cap of a humble working man, is the pleasingly named Basil Brown, whose lack of a formal degree doesn't seem to faze Mulligan's Edith Pretty (if that name wasn't also in the history books, you wouldn't blame screenwriter Moira Buffini for making it up.)

Basil is all Edith can really afford anyway, with a large estate to run and a son, Robert (Archie Barnes) to support. But she seems glad for any reprieve from their loneliness, and the little boy quickly latches onto the thrill of a new father figure with kid-friendly tidbits and trivia to spare.

When the silent lumps out there begin to yield something more than old dirt and crumbled artifacts, a bigger crew is brought in to help – suddenly quadrupling both the cast and its capacity for romantic intrigue. There's Stuart Piggot (Ben Chaplin) and his wife Peggy (a brunette, dowdified Lily James), who can't seem to figure out why her husband remains so indifferent to their marriage but so fond of his friend John (The Witcher's Eamon Farren). And Rory (Emma.'s Johnny Flynn), a shaggy blonde cousin of Edith's more blessed with Labrador charm than digging skills.

Director Simon Stone (The Daughter) fills the screen with grey-tipped skies and a tasteful strings-and-piano score, and the circa-1939 costumes and interiors are quietly impeccable. A heavier shade of mortality hang over it all though, too — not just the dread of impending war, but other losses and vulnerabilities closer to home.

That's the kind of stuff that actors of this caliber are made for, and Fiennes and Mulligan (operating in an entirely different universe from her current turn in the candy-coated satire Promising Young Woman) make lovely, delicate work of characters whose emotions operate for so much of the film like icebergs, only exposed at the tip.

The script can't always stay on that path with them as it swings toward sentiment or gets wrapped up in other storylines; some moments register as too subtle altogether, and others not at all. But in the larger sense of whatever a movie like this promises to be — that you will laugh (in a properly low-key English way) and cry (but not too outrageously), and feel the sudden, urgent need to drink milky tea and own a pair of dungarees — The Dig more than fulfills its destiny. B

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