Can you dig it? By it, of course, I mean the famous excavation at Sutton Hoo, the discovery of a complete ship, dragged from the river and used as a burial site, complete with a secret chamber full of Anglo-Saxon treasures? Can you dig that? Why, yes, you can! So, sit back and enjoy this lengthy but enjoyable film from the serious side of Netflix, which features all-star cast in a specifically British outing into stiff upper-lips and hidden reserves of pluck and steely determination amongst the filth. Based on a book by John Preston, Simon Stone’s film has a better sense of period and time than most, and somehow makes something absorbing from people shovelling dirt around a pre-WWII field.
The field in question belongs to Ms Pretty (Carey Mulligan in a very different mode to Promising Young Woman). She’s a widower with a young son and an undiagnosed health issue; a quick reading montage establishes that she’s got a kindred spirit in Basil Brown, who fancies a shot at excavating her burial mounds. Played by Ralph Fiennes beneath a fresh frosting of dirt, Brown is arguable the active protagonist here. His view of the world as ‘continuous’ provides plenty of opportunity for several generations of British stars to congregate, from Ken Stott and Ben Chaplin, and newer models Johnny Flynn and Lily James, who inevitably fall in love because, well, Netflix gotta Netflix.
Dodging all the tedious pedants who want to point out the differences between the actual Sutton Hoo excavation and this incarnation, like casual Netflix viewers would care, it’s still notable that James’ character, Peggy Piggot, is portrayed as a daffy, accident prone Bunty rather than the experienced, trusted archaeologist she really was. But this is fiction masquerading as fact, and the details are all available elsewhere. Stone’s film aims for something more poetic, and a sense of lives about to be upturned, by war, by illness, by betrayal, and the script, Moira Buffini’s best to date, nails that idea with some skill.
There’s a painful device by which conversations are relayed without synchronised sound that’s something of a problem; regular Netflix viewers will know that lack of synced sound is a regular issue as your content buffers, and we really don’t need artists leaning into that area without good reason. But such quibbles aside, The Dig is quite an achievement given that the world was hardly waiting for another archaeology film, and this well-acted, carefully constructed film is a pleasant, crowd-pleasing, word-of-mouth surprise.