Review: ‘The Dig’ is an unpretentious look at how the past affects the present

They say that you can never really know where you are going if you don’t know where you have been. This is true for societies as well as individuals, and in the new Netflix movie The Dig we get a chance to delve into a moment in England’s history as well as England’s relationship with its history.

It starts with Edith Pretty (Carrie Mulligan), a widow who owns the land at Sutton Hoo, a site somewhat famous for the mounds located upon it. These mounds are obviously not natural, and obviously unexplored. Edith has a hunch that they might be more significant than they appear and hired Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), an experienced but amateur local excavator to verify if she is correct. She was: Sutton Hoo ended up being one of the most significant archaeological finds in English history. It revealed proof that early Anglo-Saxon society was one of culture.

No, none of this is spoilers because it all actually happened back in the late 1930s and you have probably read about it at school.

Pretty and Brown form the central relationship of the film, and it is always a delight to watch two good actors work together. Mulligan’s Pretty is obviously unwell and only barely hiding it from those around her. She is steadfast and vulnerable all at once, and the excavation of a royal burial ship allows her to think about what her legacy will be once she is gone and her young son is left on his own.

Fiennes is also great as Brown, the amateur expert who is overlooked (at least at first) by the educated men that eventually join the dig, but of all of them, he’s the one who can look at the ground and tell them what is there. Brown is a proud man and doesn’t suffer being talked down to, and Fiennes British stoicism and stiff-upper-lippedness really makes the character shine in the moments he does open up to Edith and her son.

The Dig also benefits from its setting. Rural England at sunset is a beautiful place, and a lot of this movie takes place at sunset. Director Simon Stone keeps the camera work dynamic and engaging, perhaps to a fault. He uses many handheld cameras kept in motion, giving the impression that we are moving through the world with the characters on screen. It is actually quite effective, except when it isn’t, and in those moments it really isn’t.

In short, The Dig is well worth your time. Is it a little long? Yes, but it is also gorgeously shot and incredibly well-acted.

The Dig is available on Netflix now.