Self-taught archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) is hired by Suffolk landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) to investigate large mounds on her property in Sutton Hoo. Brown’s suspicions that it may be the site of an Anglo-Saxon burial rather than of the Viking-era are eventually vindicated, but time works against them as Britain nears the outbreak of war.
As Netflix Originals go, this might be the best I’ve yet seen (admittedly I may have missed a better one somewhere, but if I have, its well hidden). This is a great little movie; perfectly cast with superb performances, excellent art direction and simply gorgeous cinematography. Its gentle and languid regards telling its story and maintains a sense of the intimate throughout, with genuinely interesting characters caught up in truly fascinating/life-changing events while a wider canvas of general history (the beginning of the Second World War) plays out around them. Its based on a true story and is respectful and fairly authentic in telling that story: its nod to dramatic license (a fleeting romantic interlude between supporting characters) being the films weakest link.
The word delicate fits this film like a glove. There is a sense of time and place that is quite intoxicating, characters dwarfed by vast English skies and the landscape that surrounds them (there’s something delightfully reminiscent of Malick in this films visuals). Edith’s struggles with her own mortality as her health fails, her doubts about what comes after, strike a poignant chord with their reflections as the centuries-old secrets of the Sutton Hoo find become apparent. What do any of us really leave behind, for how long will we be remembered and why? As news of the find spreads, and professional archaeologists move in and take credit for the find, Brown’s own place in history becomes threatened (“Mark my words… I won’t receive any credit. I won’t even be a footnote”). Fiennes is wonderful in a subtle, understated performance and Mulligan continues to impress (is it really fifteen years now since she appeared in the BBC’s Bleak House adaptation?).
If only Netflix could concentrate more on films such as this rather than compete with Hollywood with big overblown action films. I just hope that The Dig is popular enough with subscribers that it encourages Netflix to perhaps look at making more films like it. You know, maybe there’s something to films with a fascinating story and realistic, interesting characters and yeah, maybe there’s some traction to having some real drama that doesn’t involve wild stunts and explosions. There’s something delightfully old-fashioned regards The Dig and I really, really enjoyed it. One of the films of the year, I have no doubt.