Dig, The: Simon Stone’s Period Drama, Starring Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan

Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes star in The Dig, Simon Stone’s period drama about the excavation of ancient burial site on an English estate on the eve of World War II.
The cast also features Lily James and Johnny Flynn.
The Dig
Netflix

From left: Carey Mulligan, Archie Barnes and Ralph Fiennes in ‘The Dig’

Class barriers define the work of Ralph Fiennes’ amateur archeologist Basil Brown in The Dig. Simon Stone’s account of the revolutionary 1939 discovery of a burial chamber that illuminate the Dark Ages is essentially a two-handler drama.

Adapted by playwright and screenwriter Moira Buffini from the 2007 novel by John Preston, the film deviates from the novel by flipping the age difference of the real-life characters.

Fiennes is almost a decade older than Brown when he makes the historic find, while Carey Mulligan is 20 years younger than her character Edith Pretty, the wealthy widowed landowner who was in her mid-50s when she hired Brown to excavate the ancient burial mounds on her Suffolk estate, Sutton Hoo.  The filmmakers also added a side love story involving a young archaeologist (Lily James).

The Dig” filmmakers tapped into the human drama of the famed find involving amateur archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) and the site’s wealthy widowed landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), and

But the big draw is the striking screen creation, the impressively rebuilt Sutton Hoo excavation site where the 100-foot-long Viking ship was uncovered.

Ralph Fiennes (as Basil Brown) inspects his project in "The Dig."

Says director Stone: “The reason we invest in unusual stories about these weird worlds is because you can feel the fabric of truth in what you are watching. You need to present what it’s like to be there, the shock of sudden discoveries. If we had created that artificially, the audience would’ve smelled that a mile away.”

Six massive mounds were formed on a farm in Surrey outside London to simulate the original field, each covered in seeds and fertilized weeks before production began in order to allow wild grass and weeds to flourish.

“It was a challenge, imagining what it would feel like to finish this job and then moving backward to earlier joys of the discovery,” says Stone.

During the movie’s fall shoot, the location was swamped in rainstorms that made it look like a disaster zone.

Ralph Fiennes (as Basil Brown) gets instruction on the set of "The Dig."

The set, and earth, had to be restored as if it was sitting in the hot, sunny summer of 1939 rather than 2019 drenching rain. When a storm was called for in the story, the rain stopped. “It was raining when it shouldn’t rain, and then not raining when we wanted it to rain,” says Stone. “We had to bring in huge rain machines.”

The actor also took the ultimate realistic measure, filming a scene where his character is entirely engulfed in soil from a collapsing wall, and has to be dug out by a team lead by Mulligan’s Pretty.

A stunt double was hired, but Fiennes insisted on doing the scene himself, pointing to a passage where Brown says, “I come from this soil, I know this soil. And I have lived my life knowing the earth around here.”

“I cannot in good conscience say those words, and know I did the comfortable thing before stepping in once all the hard work was done,” Fiennes told Stone.

On the eve of World War II, a wealthy widow (Carey Mulligan) hires an amateur archaeologist (Ralph Fiennes) to excavate the burial mounds on her estate and they discover something historic in Netflix's "The Dig."

The scene required Fiennes to have his body buried for long stretches, and the moment of having his entire head covered in soil lasted about 30 seconds before he was uncovered dramatically before the camera.

“It’s remarkable to watch the realism of moments like those,” says Stone, as there were several takes of Fiennes being covered in soil.

Fiennes tackled not only the distinct regional Suffolk accent but also asked his local vocal coach yo instruct him in authentic dialect and words of the 1930s. The actor never departed from his ineloquent character during the shoot.

“It’s such a difficult accent. He had nothing he could rely on in his body memory for how that person should be. So he had to just stay there,” says Stone. “He was like ‘This is me for the whole shoot.’ He took the Daniel Day-Lewis mantle.” Fiennes would sign all his emails, even text messages as Basil.