The Dig (AU - PG/UK - 12A/US - PG-13)

In a Word: Illuminating

The Dig

Carey Mulligan stars as Edith Pretty and Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown in 'The Dig'. PICTURE: Larry Horricks/Netflix © 2021

The discovery of a 7th century Anglo Saxon burial at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, England, was one of the most remarkable archaeological finds of the 20th century. The excavation unearthed unparalled treasures, many of which - including a spectacular helmet - are now housed in the British Museum.

The Dig, streaming on Netflix, tells the story of how it came about with an emphasis on the overlooked hero of the story - amateur "excavator" Basil Brown (played here by Ralph Fiennes). Brown was hired by widowed landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) to excavate a series of mysterious mounds on her land.

"The charm of this film lies in the emotional power of the story and the fine work of its cast...And, the fact that this is, after all, based on a true story."

Brown duly sets about the task but after he finds the imprint of a 27 metre long ship - which turns out to be part of a 7th century Anglo-Saxon burial - news spreads and eventually reaches the Office of Public Works who puts Cambridge archaeologist Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) on the job (and in charge).

Brown is pushed aside as Phillips and his new team, including Peggy Piggott (Lily James), move in and, despite Edith Pretty's efforts, he is forced to watch from the sidelines as the dig continues.

Australian director Simon Stone keeps the pace slow - although the looming conflict (the film is set in the late 1930s, just as World War II is breaking out) and the interlacing of the main narrative with that of a love affair involving one of Phillips' team,  who herself makes a remarkable archaeological find, add elements of tension. Raiders of the Lost Ark this isn't.

The charm of this film, which is based on a 2007 novel by John Preston, lies in the emotional power of the story and the fine work of its cast, from the understated persona of Fiennes brings to his portrayal of Brown to the quiet sadness of Mulligan's Pretty (controversy over the choice of Mulligan to play someone 20 years older than her aside) and the brusque self-importance of Stott's Phillips. And, the fact that this is, after all, based on a true story.

The Dig conveys a deep sense of the importance of the past and the thrill such a discovery brings. But it's also about ensuring that the work of one humble man in bringing such treasures to light is not forgotten.