The Dig review: Carey Mulligan delivers stunning performance in padded film

The Dig: Carey Mulligan stars in Netflix trailer

Netflix have stumbled upon a few killer movie ideas over the past few years. Project Power brought the superhero genre into reality, using a hard drugs angle. The Old Guard made Charlize Theron an incredible, timeless warrior who couldn’t die, whilst pitting her against Dudley Dursley from Harry Potter. The streaming giant has now recruited another of the Harry Potter actors – Voldemort star Ralph Fiennes – to lead their latest movie: The Dig – and it might be one of their best original movies yet.

The Dig retells the heartwarming and almost unbelievable story of the Sutton Hoo excavation.

The artefacts and treasures discovered in Suffolk in 1939 are still some of the oldest and most valuable objects found in the UK to this day.

While many of the digs at the time were headed up by university-educated archeologists, Sutton Hoo was explored extensively by Basil Brown – a self-taught excavator, and our protagonist for the film.

Played by Fiennes, Basil is quickly established as a person of peculiarity, who seems uncomfortable in the presence of the living, and would rather skip to digging up the civilisations of the dead

Basil is employed by Mrs Edith Pretty – Carey Mulligan – who has decided to dig up the mounds on her land before the looming threat of World War II claims Britain entirely.

What follows is something I didn’t expect: An emotional, personal journey which puts the titular dig on the backbench, while each of the characters are explored intimately with simply jaw-dropping performances.

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As mentioned, Basil is a little awkward on-screen, and that is a testament to how, simply, remarkable Fiennes is as the character.

His short, mumbled accent feels extremely authentic, and forces him to express everything he wants to say with his body instead, creating a memorable and heart-wrenching time on-screen.

Basil is accented perfectly by the arrival of his wife, May Brown (Monica Dolan), who plays his endlessly supportive and staunchly fierce partner, no matter the scenario.

But the British actor’s finest scenes come when he shares the screen with Mrs Pretty’s son, Robert Pretty (Archie Barnes).

Together, Fiennes and Barnes are simply wonderful. After losing his father years ago, Robert needs a father figure to look up to, which coalesces perfectly with Basil’s sombre and weighty response when Mrs Pretty asks if he had children.

“No,” he says, quietly. “We, uh… No.”

But it is their love for Mrs Pretty that brings their story arcs home, as the matriarch of the land, and the estate, holds a dark secret which effects everyone around her.

Mulligan is an absolute icon. To me, she is flawless in this role. She plays Mrs Pretty in a serenely powerful manner, but with echoes of fragility.

The actor is one of the best British stars around today (as demonstrated in 2011’s Drive, but I digress) and The Dig just adds to her stunning call-sheet.

Alas, not everything about The Dig is perfect. Partway through the movie a collection of side-characters are introduced to aid Basil with his ongoing dig.

A number of these characters get almost no screen-time, and are mostly used to voice the fact that, yes, World War II is literally about to happen. 

A lot of the second half of the film focusses on famed archeologist, Peggy Piggott, and the break down of her marriage.

Peggy, played by Lily James, comes across as an impossibly nice, fantastically intelligent woman who, frankly, is better than her husband.

Peggy, as a character, is very interesting, but her story is basically boiled down to a raunchy forbidden romance with Mrs Pretty’s fictional brother, Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn).

As the main plots of the film – the dig, and the relationships between Basil, Mrs Pretty, and Robert – come to a head, Peggy and Rory’s lust-filled journey inexplicably takes centre-stage.

James and Flynn are competent in their roles – but this isn’t their story. The entire sub-plot feels like it was thrown in at the end to pad out the movie, and bring a certain romance to the drama, without compromising other well-established relationships.

Despite this, it is important to touch briefly on Simon Stone’s exceptional directing.

He uses an off-screen voiceover technique a few times over the course of the movie which really captivates how wonderful each of the actors are – and truly makes this vista-filled story stand out from your average historical fiction flick.

Extended voiceover conversations give little insights into the idiosyncracies of each of the characters. Basil and Mrs Pretty’s off-screen chats delved into their backgrounds, loves, losses, and personal tragedies. Each of these gorgeously edited scenes explored their characters further, and their desire to dig deeper became that much more poignant. It really struck a chord with me. It was amazing.

The Dig is objectively one of Netflix’s best films in the past couple of years. The historical setting itself is intriguing – especially for those who are newcomers to the Sutton Hoo legacy – but the personal, nuanced touches delivered by Fiennes and Mulligan throughout the two-hour film really make it stand out. The Dig is remarkable. Watch it now.

The Dig is out now on Netflix.

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