The Dig review: Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes in ‘moving’ Sutton Hoo drama

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Restraint is often the best policy when it comes to a historical drama.

Based on a fictionalised historical novel of the same name, The Dig is set in an England on the brink of war in 1939 and follows the widowed landowner and single mother Edith Pretty ( Carey Mulligan ) as she invites local amateur archaeologist Basil Brown ( Ralph Fiennes ) to examine the mounds on her property in Suffolk.

As the down-to-Earth maverick Basil sets to work, he soon discovers what would be an undisturbed ship burial dating back to Anglo-Saxon times.

Soon a larger team joins Basil’s efforts, including the unhappily married archaeologists Peggy Preston ( Lily James ) and her cold husband Stuart Piggott ( Ben Chaplin ), the experienced archaeologist Charles Phillips ( Ken Stott ), and the thoughtful – but fictional – photographer Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn).

The Dig stars Carey Mulligan as landowner Edith Pretty (left) who asks Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes, right) to dig on her land
(Image: Larry Horricks/Netflix)

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Yet, as more discoveries are made beneath the dirt at Sutton Hoo, more personal difficulties arise for both Edith and Basil, whose friendship proves powerful for the both of them.

Despite being thin on major plot points beyond the major historical discovery at its centre, The Dig is a well-judged piece of filmmaking that is delicately directed by Australian director Simon Stone and wonderfully shot by cinematographer cinematographer Mike Eley.

With a nuanced script from Moira Buffini and equally restrained but moving performances from leads Mulligan and Fiennes, Stone ensures an often haunting film that is as preoccupied with the personal legacy of its characters as their landmark achievements.

Ralph Fiennes' Basil Brown is an amateur archaeologist with his own difficulties
(Image: LARRY HORRICKS/NETFLIX)

Basil digs for the Sutton Hoo, while befriending Edith and her son Robert
(Image: LARRY HORRICKS/NETFLIX)

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A reliably understated Mulligan is a sweet but occasionally chilly Edith – clearly at a new career high-point following her wonderful work in thriller Promising Young Woman.

Meanwhile, Fiennes is the film’s high-point as Basil, inhabiting the role of an unlikely hero who struggles with class and education, yet is grounded in a real sensitivity for his science and also listening to the problems of those around him.

The central connection between Basil and Edith is the film’s heart, especially as he takes an interest in her sweet but emotionally intelligent son Robert (Archie Barnes).

Johnny Flynn stars as fictional photographer Rory Lomax (left) with Robert Pretty (Archie Barnes)
(Image: LARRY HORRICKS/NETFLIX)

Lily James plays the unhappily married Peggy Preston in The Dig
(Image: LARRY HORRICKS/NETFLIX)

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Elsewhere, the subplots with other characters add another mixture of melodrama to proceedings.

Lily James and Johnny Flynn offer some added sweetness and charm, but ultimately their story fails to hit a truly satisfying mark as it is not as entirely developed as the emotional journeys of Edith and Basil.

Ultimately, with its meditative pace and well-judged performances, The Dig is a period drama worthy of the historical achievement it focuses on.

Verdict

The Dig is a thoughtful, melancholic, and restrained film about a major archaeological discovery that also truly explores the people who found it.

The Dig is released on Netflix on January 29, 2021.

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