The Dig sounds fairly unpromising on paper. It’s based around the excavation of the Sutton Hoo horde – one of the most significant discoveries in British archeological history – and, since we know the eventual outcome of the tale before a single sod of earth has been lifted, it’s all too easy to surmise that this will be a story bereft of any suspense. However, as written by Moira Buffini (based on a novel by John Preston), and directed by Simon Stone, this is nonetheless a compelling story that never fails to hold the attention and, in one particular sequence, will have you holding your breath and crossing your fingers.
It’s 1939 and Great Britain is hurtling irrevocably towards World War 2. Suffolk landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) has long wanted to explore three ancient burial mounds in one of her fields and, to this end, she decides to hire local man, Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes). Brown has years of practical experience in excavation, but not much in the way of qualifications. However, once the little matter of payment has been finalised, he sets to with gusto.
When the excavation begins to yield some promising results, the glowering, overbearing Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) is dispatched by the British Museum to stake their claim on the gradually emerging treasures. Soon, more hands are called to help out with the donkey work. These include Peggy Piggot (Lily James), recently betrothed to Stuart (Ben Chaplin), who, it turns out, isn’t ideal husband material – and Edith’s cousin, Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn), fills in some time while waiting to take up his commission with the RAF. The various characters make up a volatile mixture, and there is an added shot of tragedy when Edith discovers that time is running out in more ways than one…
This is a handsomely-mounted production – the English countryside, thanks to cinematographer Mike Eley, has rarely looked more sumptuous – and Mulligan and Fiennes make a memorable on-screen partnership, she playing her vulnerability for all its worth, and he portraying the kind of stoic, no-nonsense personality that seems to go hand-in-hand with the era. There’s no actual romance between them – Brown is married to the equally steadfast May (Monica Dolan) – yet Pretty and Brown eventually establish a relationship based on mutual respect. Brown does forge a friendship with Edith’s young son, Robert (Archie Baines), built around a mutual interest in star gazing, and the scenes where he counsels the troubled boy are beautifully handled.
Those looking for something to transcend the current glum realities of life, could do a lot worse than clicking the Netflix button, but be warned, there’s a poignant conclusion here that may have some of you reaching for the tissues.