Sutton Hoo – when an ancient Anglo-Saxon burial site was discovered beneath an English field in 1939 – is recreated in a true-life drama with hidden depths of its own. Superficially, it’s the kind of real-life period story that seems tailor made for your gran, with its cast of dependable British thesps, summery vistas and scenes of people offering each other barley water.
But alongside the dappled countryside vistas, The Dig boasts an emotional payload that has it lingering a little longer than you might expect. Ralph Fiennes plays Basil Brown, an earthy amateur archaeologist (think Lady Chatterley’s gamekeeper meets Ted from The Fast Show). He’s hired by Carey Mulligan’s ill widow, Edith Pretty, to take his shovel to a few burial mounds on her Suffolk estate. When Basil hits the historical motherlode, the big guns from local cultural institutions and the British Museum descend and he’s quickly sidelined.
Both leads are terrific, summoning a touching platonic bond as two people used to being dictated to because of their class and gender. Mulligan marries quiet melancholy and a rich sense of mischief, with Edith amused and a little abashed to find herself holding sway over these austere cultural institutions. The way she chooses to use that power is at the film’s heart. Fiennes, for his part, is a perfect foil: Basil is acutely aware of his place but is also dogged and principled, a gentle, kind soul. One scene with Edith’s young son (Archie Barnes), as he frets over his mother’s illness, is a real heartbreaker.
Less successful is a rather rote love triangle involving Lily James’s bright young archeologist, her closeted husband (Ben Chaplin) and Edith’s cousin (Johnny Flynn), a dashing RAF pilot-to-be. And Monica Dolan makes an impression as Basil’s loyal wife that has you wishing there was a bit more of her.
The other star here is – brace for cliché – the English countryside itself. Sure, there’s enough lens flare to have you unconsciously reaching for your sunnies, but it’s a vicarious pleasure to let The Dig’s warm, gauzy light wash over you. Blanketed in defiant optimism and soaked in summer sun, it’s definitely one to watch with your nan. When you’re allowed to, obvs.
On Netflix worldwide Jan 29.