The Dig (3 stars)

The Dig

Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes and Lily James get their hands dirty in this historical drama

The Australian director of The Daughter, Simon Stone, brings grace and fluidity to the story of a seminal historical find, as he recounts the discovery of an Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo in 1939. Featuring unshowy work from Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes, The Dig sees the world teetering on the brink of war; given our national obsession with the period, it's refreshing to come at the era from a different angle.

If Fiennes seems an unconventional choice for gruff excavator Basil Brown, he is at least a Suffolk native himself. Brown is highly skilled in his profession and has been working in the field since childhood. Although he lacks the respect of educated archaeologists, he's clearly the best man for the job when the wealthy Edith Pretty (Mulligan) needs someone to lead a dig on some land she's acquired, which seems to contain several burial mounds.

There's great charm to the early scenes, where two kindred spirits from different ends of the social spectrum come tentatively together in their shared enthusiasm for archaeology. Neither Mulligan nor Fiennes overegg their portrayal of characters which could easily lapse into caricature – the stiff lady of the manor and the similarly proud and suitably earthy working man – instead they convey their personal disappointments with real sensitivity. Both are oddballs in their worlds and the film is alive to their difficulties relating to gender and class; neither were allowed to fulfil their academic potential, despite a thirst for learning.

If that's all rather touching, The Dig very suddenly becomes overcrowded when the site is turned over to the British Museum and new characters come flooding in, including Ken Stott's sneering head honcho Charles Phillips, and Lily James and Ben Chaplin as Peggy and Stuart Piggott, whose marriage is on the rocks. Stuart's eye is drawn by a male colleague, while Peggy takes a shine to Edith's cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn). Peggy is better known as noted archaeologist Margaret Guido, so her role should be prominent here, but the romantic nature of her story feels cliched and tacked on.

As the film shifts awkwardly into ensemble drama mode, its delicacy is trodden under foot in a confusion of characters, themes and metaphors, whether it's musing on the incoming war, gazing up at the stars, or reflecting on life, death, history and taking a chance on love. The Dig lacks the penetrating focus of Francis Lee's not too dissimilar Ammonite, but cinematographer Mike Eley breathes life into the period with his roving, revitalising style, and it is lovely for a while.

Available to watch on Netflix from Fri 29 Jan.

The Dig

  • 3 stars
  • 2021
  • UK / US
  • 1h 52min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Simon Stone
  • Cast: Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James, Johnny Flynn, Ben Chaplin, Ken Stott, Archie Barnes, Monica Dolan
  • UK release: 29 January 2021

In 1938 an archaeologist excavates Sutton Hoo.