The Dig review: A handsome, deeply moving drama
Ivan Radford | On 31, Jan 2021
Director: Simon Stone
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James, Johnny Flynn, Ben Chaplin, Ken Stott
Watch The Dig online in the UK: Netflix UK
“There’s nothing holding it, except time,” muses Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) in The Dig, Netflix’s new film about the Sutton Hoo archaeological dig, which unearthed a landmark horde of Anglo-Saxon treasures and artefacts. A slow-placed retelling of this historic excavation of even-earlier history isn’t the most obvious pitch for a Netflix movie, but there’s meditative soul packed into the very soil of this gorgeous drama, a weighty yet gentle pleasure that’s worth digging into.
The Suffolk land at the heart of the story belongs to Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), a wealthy widow who hires local specialist Basil to dig up the mounds on her property. He agrees and soon discovers that, unlike the Roman graves expected, it’s the site of a tomb from the Dark Ages, at which point the British Museum – led by the snobby Charlies Phillips (Ken Stott, perfectly pitched) – enters the frame and takes over the whole site.
There’s a winning tale here of a self-taught historian proving himself the equal of Oxbridge scholars – Brown humbly calls himself an “excavator” not an archaelogist – but The Dig has deeper, bigger concerns on its mind; this isn’t the story of a plucky amateur standing up to an institution, but rather the story of individuals standing up to the passage of time itself. The British Museum, which stands for preserving and sharing the find with the biggest possible audience, would love nothing more than to brush Basil out of the books altogether, but there’s something stalwart and unchanging about his determination to be a part of the dig – and Edith, too, is vocal about his contributions and achievements being recorded for generations to come.
That tangible awareness of the fleeting nature of existence seeps through the whole film, as Edith faces a worsening medical condition while trying to conceal it from her son, Robert (Archie Barnes). The bond that forms between Robert and Basil brings comfort in more ways than one, as Basil passes on the melancholic yet reassuring knowledge that the past can still live on through the legacy it leaves behind.
That poignant tone is amplified by the awareness that this is all unfolding on the eve of war, with no young man safe from being conscripted. It also echoes in the presence of Peggy (Lily James), whose faltering marriage to Stuart (an excellently understated Ben Chaplin) leads her to being attracted to Edith’s brother, Rory (Johnny Flynn) – both of them aware that any sparks that fly cannot last beyond this shared moment.
At one point, someone reflects on the fact that, in 1,000 years, nothing will be left of them except for their torches and parts of a watch, and yet each step of progress with the Sutton Hoo haul reaffirms the way that even the smallest fragments can carry on stories centuries later, serving as proof of their existence. Does that make the present more important or less important? Moira Buffini’s script (based on the novel by John Preston – a journalist and nephew of Peggy) manages to ponder such questions without getting buried beneath sentiment or philosophy; it sinks its fingers into human nature with a soft, muddy touch, with an ear for Englishness that feels as timeless as her 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre and as immediately modern as her TV series Harlots.
The cast clearly find pleasure in the material, with Mulligan bringing a heartbreaking fragility to her quietly purposeful widow and Fiennes mastering Basil’s accent with a gentle kindness and understated knowledge of his own worth and skills. Together, they’re a lovely plutonic couple, generously still making room for others – including the impeccable Monica Dolan as Basil’s wife – to leave an impression.
Director Simon Stone, who dazzled with the Young Vic’s production of Yerma and previously helmed The Daughter, brings a chamber-like intimacy to this ensemble piece, which finds its strength in the way that people join together in common purpose – a duty to respect the past and pay it forwards to the future. DoP Mike Eley keeps our feet in the dirt but our eyes gazing up at the stars, capturing with breathtaking beauty the wide open Suffolk skies, which range from oppressive clouds to blue-grey expanses that stretch out to infinity. Mortality lingers in the air, with RAF planes flying overhead, but there’s an uplifting hope and warmth that persists through every tiny brush stroke. “From the first human handprint on a cave wall, we’re part of something continuous,” Basil tells Edith. “so we don’t really die.”
The Dig is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.