Ralph Fiennes’s Sutton Hoo drama, The Dig, is a beautiful, heartfelt period tale

Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes in Netflix's heartfelt drama, The Dig - Netflix
Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes in Netflix's heartfelt drama, The Dig - Netflix
  • Dir: Simon Stone. Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Carey Mulligan, Lily James, Johnny Flynn, Ken Stott, Ben Chaplin, Monica Dolan. 12 cert, 112 mins

In the summer of 1939, as a million British soldiers prepared for war, a grave was found in a field at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. Its occupant had been buried in the belly of an 89-foot ship that had been hauled up from the nearby river, sunk into the soil up to its rim, then covered over by an earthen mound.

The tomb lay undisturbed for more than a thousand years, until the field’s widowed owner, Edith Pretty, enlisted a local self-taught archaeologist, Basil Brown, to see what lay inside. It’s no overstatement to say their discovery changed our understanding of what Britain had been, and therefore by extension, what it is. Just as the nation’s future became obscured by shadow, a shaft of light was suddenly thrown on its distant past.

“It speaks, dunnit?” Ralph Fiennes’ Basil says to Carey Mulligan’s Edith in The Dig, as he makes his initial survey of the burial site. This moving and beguiling period piece about the Sutton Hoo excavations arrives at a time when the weeks and months ahead are clouded by uncertainty. But as Basil observes, the past can be a steadying influence – it’s the stuff each of us is rooted in, whether we know what’s down there or not.

The Dig was adapted by Moira Buffini from a 2007 novel by John Preston, and directed by Simon Stone, the one-time enfant terrible of Australian theatre. Stone proves to be an unexpectedly ideal match for the material – like Peter Weir and Warwick Thornton, he has a distinctively Australian feel for a landscape’s mystery and strangeness, and scenes that could have easily been postcard-pretty have a slightly dreamlike texture that catches you off guard.

There is an extraordinary sequence in which Fiennes walks to the water’s edge to sit and smoke his pipe shortly after the ship is unearthed, and watches in amazement as a boat drifts past him, right to left. It's just an ordinary modern-day vessel working the river, but for a second or two he believes – as, honestly, did I – that ancient history has somehow sailed into the present.

As the dig proceeds, word spreads of the extraordinary finds, first to the Ipswich Museum, and then further afield. Around the site, a little community sprouts: Edith spectates with her young son Robert (Archie Barnes, a real find), while her roguishly handsome nephew Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn) takes photographs while waiting to be called up to the RAF.

Other archaeologists are also summoned to assist – one being Peggy Piggott (Lily James), a young woman who arrives with her better-known husband Stuart (Ben Chaplin) to much blokey chuckling over her suitability for the job in physical, as opposed to academic, terms. She’s dainty enough to pick her way across the ship without damaging it, which is more than can be said for Ken Stott’s roly-poly foreman, supervising from the side.

The terrific cast clearly know their characters intimately, and one of the great pleasures of the film is watching their individual outlooks shift from scene to scene, as both the ancient ship and the coming war remind them all that history is very long, and our own roles within it heartbeat-short. Edith is sick and growing sicker by the day, and is keenly aware that when she dies her son will become an orphan. There is a piercingly sad sequence, beautifully underplayed by Mulligan, in which Edith is confronted by her failing health and tells herself through tears: “Not yet… not yet.”

Johnny Flynn puts in a 'roguishly handsome' turn - Netflix
Johnny Flynn puts in a 'roguishly handsome' turn - Netflix

Basil, brilliant as he is, is also working class and formally unqualified, and must reckon with the strong possibility that his work at the site will go unrecognised. (And not without reason. In a piece published in Suffolk Magazine only four years ago, he was described as “the invisible archaeologist.”)

Meanwhile, Peggy is coming to terms with the fact that her husband’s affections clearly lie elsewhere. The dashing Rory is a tempting and convenient alternative, but the will-they won’t-they sexual tension feels less like a flirtation than a mutual sounding-out of each other’s willingness to seize a moment that’s already slipping off. As the two talked by a campfire at moonlight, I found myself willing them to kiss, fists clenched, like a 12-year-old girl watching High School Musical. It’s existential angst, but not quite as Sartre knew it.

Perhaps fittingly, the juicy stuff here is beneath the surface, while up on top, The Dig largely plays by the period-drama rules. The shape of its story is ultimately conventional, and the way in which it’s told can sometimes feel familiar – like a Sunday evening drama smuggling in big ideas. But the line it draws between the earthy and the ethereal stays with you: it’s a well-timed double dose of consolation and escape.

On Netflix now