Rating : ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Categorisation: Period drama
Availability: Netflix, local cinemas
Plot: It’s 1939 and Britain is on the verge of war. Edith Pretty has a impressive manor house in Suffolk and upon her land there are large mounds that she is keen to excavate. Interested in archeology, she thinks it may be a Viking burial ground, and so hires a well-respected but amateur excavator, Basil Brown. The film is based on the Sutton Hoo find, the most important archeological excavation in British history. The film takes us through the dig, exploring the impact it has on all those involved, and illustrating the tensions and rivalries within archeological circles that both unsettle and challenge ideas about who owns a dig.
Cast: Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes are both outstanding as the film’s two main characters, Edith and Basil. United by a common purpose, the characters carry the action throughout the first half of the film. Hinting at an attraction between Edith and Basil that was non-existent in real life, the second half of the film switches toward other characters for a romantic interest, in particular, the young archeologist Peggy Piggott, played by Lilly James, and Rory Lomax the dig’s (fictional) photographer, played by Johnny Flynn. Both are excellent in the film, as is Ken Stott, the pompous British Museum archeologist who ultimately takes over the dig, and Monica Dolan as May, Basil’s wife. Interestingly, Johnny Flynn wrote the hauntingly beautiful theme song for the successful series, the Detectorists that also explores the joys and disappointments inherent in the search for ancient relics.
Filming and setting: Simon Stone directed The Dig based on John Preston’s well-received fictionalised account of the discovery of the Sutton Hoo. Moria Buffini wrote the screenplay and Mike Eley’s cinematography captures perfectly the muted palette of the beautiful English countryside. The film-makers recreated the Sutton Hoo site in Surrey, making use of farmland so they could create the burial grounds which they would then excavate. Great effort goes into making the scenes authentic.
Personal Comments: This is a beautifully produced film that captures well the significance and fascination of the Sutton Hoo find. More broadly, the film gently unearths the physical, and emotional, elements relating to death, loss, and human connections over time. But despite many brilliant scenes, the film loses impact in the second half when Edith and Basil retreat into the background of the story. Perhaps the lack of any romantic potential between the lead characters proved too much of a challenge for the filmmakers. There is a sense in which the romantic liaison between Peggy and Rory feels like a tag-on too late in the piece. Even though the actors do well, there is a missed opportunity for the film to continue its focus on the extraordinary archeological discovery and the fascinating people who actually took part in it.