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Netflix movie The Dig immortalises extraordinary Sutton Hoo discovery

news– For more than a millennium, burial mounds lay untouched on the Suffolk landscape in the English countryside.

The occasional robber may have had a stab but the mysteries of what remained beneath the earth was lost to time. Until 1939 when the landowner of the estate on which these mounds sat, Edith Pretty, commissioned an archaeological team to find out.

What they found is now known as the Sutton Hoo burial site, an extraordinary archaeological discovery as significant as the Tutankhamun’s Tomb or the Terracotta Warriors. It was a large, intact burial ship with a haul of Anglo-Saxon artefacts and treasures dating back to the 5th century.

Speculation is that the extravagant funerary arrangements were for someone as important as a king. The discovery also up-ended then-conventional wisdom about culture in the Dark Ages.

And it was all uncovered by Basil Brown, someone without a university degree or so-called qualifications.

The drama of that discovery is immortalised in The Dig, a handsomely shot Netflix film starring Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James and Johnny Flynn and directed by Australian filmmaker and theatre virtuoso Simon Stone.

The Dig is a film that really benefits from the performances from Mulligan and Fiennes in particular, their presence and talent elevating it from a run-of-the-mill historical drama to one with a delicate balance that avoids mawkishness.

As Brown, the only recently credited initial discoverer of the Sutton Hoo site, Fiennes brings to life the archaeologist/excavator’s considered approach to his work, especially in a field dominated by establishment figures who looked down on someone of Brown’s stature.

On the flip side, the strength of Fiennes’ role means that when he’s minimised in the back half of the film as James’ female archaeologist Peggy Piggott comes to the fore, it is noticeable.

There’s a touch of the David versus Goliath in Brown’s class tensions with the British Museum folk who blow in once it’s apparent how significant the find is, but The Dig doesn’t overplay any antagonism.

That’s not what this movie is, it’s not some melodramatic tussle with black hats and white hats.

The Dig is much more interested in how the discovery of this burial site resonates with its characters, particularly Edith who was widowed not long ago. Mulligan, one of the most sensitive and nuanced actors of her generation, does this with dignified humanity.

The script by Moira Buffini, adapted from a novel by John Preston, smartly parallels the weight of the burial site excavation with Edith’s emotional struggles in trying to cope with her own failing health.

The omens of death or impending doom are heightened by the World War II preparations that surround them, the sputter of the RAF fighter plane engines heard overhead the dig site almost daily and the knowledge that young men will leave and never return.

But it’s not maudlin because The Dig is concerned with not death but legacy, what’s left behind when we’re no longer here, explored through whether Brown will be duly acknowledged or Edith’s acceptance of mortality.

Ultimately, the elegance in The Dig lies in what it says about the continuity of life rather than the finality of death.

Rating: 3/5

The Dig will premiere on Netflix on Friday, January 29 and it’s also playing in select cinemas now

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