Netflix pays homage to Basil Brown by filling up empty space.
By | Isabella Holzer
When an English widow named Edith Pretty donated the incredibly rare Anglo-Saxon artifacts found in her yard to the National British Museum, one of the most important members of her excavating team was left uncredited until years after Pretty’s death. The Dig, directed by Simon Stone, presents the untold story of Basil Brown, the amateur archaeologist and initial discoverer of the extraordinary Sutton Hoo treasures.
Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) is a stubborn and studious individual who is paid much less than he deserves, as the opening scenes make clear. He is hired by Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) much to the chagrin of the local museum heads, who insist that she hire someone with more experience. Throughout the film, the ever-growing excavation team uncovers a burial ship with treasures inside while the surrounding population prepares itself for war.
The main conflict is supposed to revolve around the intense pressure placed on the excavators, especially Brown, because they have a limited amount of time to find the treasures before World War II breaks out. The secondary conflict is situated around who should claim the artifacts, and it is mostly held between Pretty and the National Museum head Charles Phillips (Ken Stott). Unfortunately, these problems are easily and anticlimactically resolved in the film. As much as they show RAF planes soaring over the beautiful landscapes and radio announcements of the looming German army, there is never a real sense of urgency present in the incoming war plot. When they eventually collect all of the treasures, the war officially begins right after the movie is pretty much over, as if to say “the war was a big deal all along!”
The Dig decided to fill in these gaps with minor conflicts. The most notable subplot was Mrs. Pretty’s failing health, which carried the plot forward. Her poor health forced her son, Robert (Archie Brown) into a relevant role and allowed her to interact with Basil Brown a lot more. The other subplot was very puzzling to watch; it centred around Peggy Piggot (Lily James) falling out of love with her husband Stuart (Ben Chaplin) and becoming involved with Mrs. Pretty’s cousin Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn).
Peggy and her husband were introduced roughly midway through the film and their story is never properly resolved. Were the writers even trying to hide that they were made-up characters? It was unclear as to what their conflict even was until the last five minutes of the film when Lomax and Peggy were thrown into a relationship before the film abruptly ended. The affair and Peggy’s motivations were haphazardly explained in a single scene almost half an hour after their introduction. These two characters were so obviously aimless that they emphasized the film’s pacing problems: in a way, Peggy and Stuart accomplished the exact opposite of what they were created to do.
The film would show well-performed scenes of Basil Brown, the main character, leading the excavation team, explaining his family history, and dutifully following Mrs. Pretty’s careful instructions against the wishes of the National Museum heads; and then it would suddenly cut to Peggy unearthing a jewel from the dirt, or Peggy bathing in her hotel, or Peggy staring longingly into Lomax’s eyes. Stuart and Peggy receive a suspicious amount of screen time in the second and third acts. These haphazard cutaways were made even more jarring by a strange editing choice. Frequently, one character in a certain location would be shown doing something while the audio of conversation from characters in the previous scene continues playing over them. The technique was so overused that it became another loud sign of the film’s issues with pacing. The editing got so ridiculous that the map of the world began to look like the shed in the vast yard was somehow connected to Mrs. Pretty’s vanity room, which was also connected to the servant’s dining room, which was also connected to Peggy’s bathroom.
These editing and timing issues stem from the fact that Basil Brown had little to do as a character besides his job. Mrs. Pretty treated him with respect and they never disagreed on anything major. The museum heads initially didn’t trust him, but that conflict was resolved with a simple shake of the hand. The developers thought that the line “Have some lemon drizzle cake, Mr. Phillips,” would constitute actual character drama somehow. That was the second funniest line in the movie.
The best scenes in The Dig take place at the very beginning when there were so few characters that the film had time to pan the camera over the gorgeous rolling hills and introduce the bike-riding Basil Brown to the pleasant-talking Mrs. Pretty, her cinematic backyard, and the expository conversation between the local museum heads. These scenes were immersive and well-directed, even if the soundtrack wasn’t doing it any favours. The music in this movie was bland enough to feel at home in a lengthy car commercial. Stefan Gregory had some kind of attachment to repeating two-note piano figures that never bumped an interval, and a minor seventh played over the tonic scale was the most complicated chord in the movie.
Despite these flaws, the film accomplishes its main goal and tells the story of Basil Brown. His importance is highlighted almost too well; he is so revered by the end of the movie that it comes as a total shock when it is announced that he wasn’t credited for his work. The movie would’ve benefitted if Basil Brown’s story focused on the treasures themselves for as much time as it decided to focus on Peggy’s love life. The artifacts hold more significance to Brown, so it would make sense that his love of archaeology is allotted a much more prominent role in the story. It would have fared better if the run time was a little shorter, and if Peggy and Stuart were cut or relegated to actual side characters. Mrs. Pretty’s health was an excellent narrative choice and it really saved her character. The cinematography, while harmed by the unfocused audio, was nicely done overall.
Director: Simon Stone
Stars: Ralph Fiennes, Carey Mulligan, Lily James, Ben Chaplin, Johnny Flynn
Rating: PG 13
Running Time: 1h 52m