The Dig is streaming on Netflix.

With the terms of future co-existence for streaming services and big-screen movies a matter of ever more fervent debate, Netflix here stakes its claim on a production niche with particular historical importance for the UK film industry: the handsome, stirring, starry heritage drama.

It’s a quieter mode than is customary for the streamer’s in-house productions – and trepidation about that may be detectable in the film’s opening section, in which an excess of showy compositions and fits of lens flare seem to stand in for the early bouts of sex or violence whereby Netflix Originals often seek to secure viewer commitment. Though its direction of audience sympathies isn’t much more subtle, the film has far more to offer once it calms down and puts its trust in its performances. 

Based on an acclaimed 2007 novel by John Preston, The Dig fictionalises the process whereby spectacular Anglo-Saxon treasures were discovered at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, and gifted to the British Museum by landowner Edith Pretty shortly before her premature death. Real-life tensions between the various archaeologists and institutions involved are streamlined into a class-based stand-off between snobbish museum bosses hellbent on status, and the unshowy horse-sense of self-taught local excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes).

Between Brown and the aristocratic widow Edith there exists an E.M. Forsterish tremor of near-romantic fellow-feeling, a tension beautifully played by Fiennes and co-star Carey Mulligan. Subject to less restraint is the attraction between on-site archaeologist Peggy (Preston’s real-life aunt, played here by Lily James) and Edith’s nephew Rory (Johnny Flynn), whose union defies the Brief Encounter (1945) model of patriotic wartime self-denial. Mulligan was a replacement for original casting Nicole Kidman, but a fortuitous one: her sad, restrained and quietly witty character provides the emotional anchor for an undemanding but pleasantly cathartic drama. 

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