Life & Culture

Film review: The Dig

Some earthy performances, but the real treasure is overlooked in this Netflix feature about an archaeological dig, says Linda Marric


The true story behind the historical 1939 Sutton Hoo excavation in Suffolk is told in a new Netflix drama courtesy of Australian director Simon Stone (The Daughter). Adapted by Moira Buffini from John Preston’s 2007 novel of the same name, The Dig features two beautifully understated, one might say earthy performances from Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan, but is often let down by its storytelling.

It’s summer 1939, and Britain is preparing for war against Hitler’s Nazi forces. A frail, wealthy widow Edith Pretty (Mulligan) hires self-taught working class archaeologist Basil Brown (a gruff and muted Fiennes) to lead a dig on the grounds of her property. Soon the two strike up a friendship driven by their shared love for ancient history. As the dig gets under way, the British Museum gets wind that a substantial discovery of an Anglo-Saxon burial ship is about to be made.

Soon a team headed by a brash and insufferably condescending archaeologist Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) arrives in Suffolk to take over the dig. Among the new arrivals are newlyweds Peggy and Stuart Piggott (two fine performances by Lily James and Ben Chaplin) whose marriage seems to be on the rocks already. Stuart appears to have little interest in his new bride, preferring the company of a close male colleague, she in turn catches the eye of Edith’s handsome cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn).

Although based on a true story, this beautifully shot heritage drama takes a fair amount of artistic licence with real life events. But the most jarring aspect of this otherwise engaging tale, comes halfway through the film when Mulligan and Fiennes’s quietly sedate friendship is relegated to mere background noise. Instead the film focuses on the sentimental romance developing between Peggy and Rory, a subplot which adds little to the film’s narrative.

Still, Mike Eley’s sunny, ethereal cinematography and Stefan Gregory’s uplifting score make up for the film’s otherwise gauche handling of the second and third acts. The result is a fairly pedestrian retelling of a story about two extraordinary people. Consolations include Monica Dolan’s exquisite performance as Basil’s wife Mary, while newcomer Archie Barnes gives a heartfelt turn as Edith’s young son Robert.

Overall, The Dig fails to unearth anything of great value beyond two genuinely thrilling performances by Mulligan and Fiennes. Still, the film manages to be engaging and hugely watchable despite its shortcomings in the storytelling stakes. 
The Dig is on Netflix from today

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