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The Dig, Netflix review - a haunting exploration of time and timelessness | reviews, news & interviews

The Dig, Netflix review - a haunting exploration of time and timelessness

The Dig, Netflix review - a haunting exploration of time and timelessness

Adaptation of John Preston's novel packs emotional wallop

Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty, Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown

The Sutton Hoo burial site in Suffolk has proved to be one of the most valuable archaeological finds ever made in Britain, shedding priceless light on the Anglo-Saxon period of the 6th and 7th Centuries.

Simon Stone’s drama (adapted from John Preston’s novel, with a screenplay by Moira Buffini) artfully uses the story of its excavation as a rumination on time and timelessness, a sort of cosmic clock against which to contrast the brief candle of a human life.

The Dig works because it knows exactly where it wants to go and how to get there. It gets a huge leg up from Mike Eley’s cinematography, which brilliantly exploits the starkly beautiful flatlands of Suffolk, and their marshes, grasslands, waterways and endless horizons. A scene where excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) sits and watches a russet-sailed barge gliding past in the evening light is quietly breathtaking, and shots of distant figures advancing across misty fields under a hazy sun could sit comfortably alongside a roll-call of Suffolk painters.

It’s all about time, since none of the characters knows how much of it they might have left. The year is 1939, and rumours of war are beginning to impinge uncomfortably even out here in East Anglia. Little flocks of Spitfires buzz overhead from time to time like an alarm going off, and Neville Chamberlain is on the radio. One of the characters, Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn, pictured above with Archie Barnes), comes to help with the excavations on his cousin Edith’s land as a parting gesture before he’s called up to nearby RAF Martlesham. When a Spitfire crashes into a nearby river, killing the pilot, it feels disturbingly like a premonition. Rory’s brief, sudden fling with budding archaeologist Peggy Preston (Lily James, pictured below) is a flash of what might have been.

At one stage Nicole Kidman was pencilled in for the Edith role, but it’s surely a blessing that it went to Carey Mulligan, because her quiet, melancholy radiance hits exactly the right tone and pace. She’s a widow bringing up her young son Billy (Archie Barnes), who’s obsessed with science fiction and the idea that “in space, perhaps 500 years can pass in a flash”. She’s suffering from a heart condition, and Billy is old enough to sense that her time may not be long, while she’s haunted by the terror of being separated from him too soon.

But time’s long arc can contain it all. It’s Edith’s hunch that one of the large, mysterious mounds on her land may hold unknown treasure that sets the excavations off, and she brings in local archaeologist Basil Brown to investigate. He’s a man of the Suffolk soil, brought up in a long lineage of farmers who reckons he could identify the origins of any handful of local earth you’d care to lob at him. Fiennes plays him with a gruff self-containment that belies his spiritual view of the world, a long view informed by the imperishable artefacts which are his stock-in-trade. Edith tells him of her view that death is absolute and there’s no afterlife, but Brown begs to differ. “From the first human handprint on a cave wall, we’re part of something continuous,” he murmurs.

Of course, the discovery of a spectacular Saxon burial ship is news that travels far beyond the Suffolk horizon. Soon the big guns from the British Museum (led by Ken Stott’s bombastic Charles Phillips) come muscling in, barely disguising their contempt for the homespun, self-taught Brown. Edith stoically fends them all off, as she defends Brown’s rightful claim to lead the digging on her own land.Aided by Stefan Gregory’s discreetly haunting music, The Dig really is a story for the ages, a deceptively simple piece that sandbags you with its lingering emotional impact. Bravo!

  • The Dig is available on Netflix from 29 January
It’s all about time, since none of the characters knows how much they might have left


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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