Review: The Dig
Max Ingleby finds The Dig to be more of a damp trench than an unearthed treasure trove
Netflix’s new wartime drama about the discovery of Britain’s greatest horde of treasure at Sutton Hoo desperately tries to convince you that it has more beneath the surface. Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan star in this old-fashioned weepy set in 1939, with Fiennes playing amateur archaeologist Basil Brown who is tasked by wealthy landowner Edith Pretty (Mulligan) to excavate the ancient burial mounds on her estate. Soon the gravity of the find is made clear, and a host of haughty experts from the British Museum are sent over to breathe down Brown’s neck, bringing drama and romance with them.
It’s all so painfully English, or a silly, romanticised version of Englishness, with cucumber sandwiches galore, tuxedoed butlers wearing white gloves, and endless choruses of “oh, I’m terribly sorry,” and, “but I must insist”. But aside from the well-realised aesthetic and the frequently excellent cinematography, there is little treasure to be found here. The score drips with cheap sentimentality, while Carey Mulligan sits around looking sad in her gloomy manor house. Ralph Fiennes does such a good job portraying a down-to-earth, humble bloke that you start to doubt whether he’s an interesting enough character to make an entire film about.
The director must have sensed this too, hence the contrived romance subplot with Lily James as an unhappily married archaeologist who has the hots for a dashing young RAF pilot who’s about to head off into battle – oh, how dreadful! It’s all just a bit dull. The war context is clumsily shoehorned in, the two leads have no chemistry whatsoever, and the most exciting bit – the treasure! – gets barely five minutes of screen-time. If you love to spend your afternoon watching archaeologists passionately arguing over whether to send some Anglo-Saxon loot to a museum in Ipswich or London, then strap in, because it’s going to knock your socks off. For the rest of us, rest assured that this snooze of a film is utterly predictable from beginning to end.