The year is 1939, and the frail yet determined Lady Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) has hired self-taught excavationist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to investigate the strange mounds in the grounds of her Suffolk estate.
When they finally agree on how much his time is worth (30 shillings a week, if you’re wondering), Edith lends Basil the use of her chauffeur’s cottage to save him cycling 35 miles each way between Sutton Hoo and Rickinghall.
Then, once they’ve deftly sidestepped the atypical movie romance and opted instead for a refreshing ‘meeting of the minds’ relationship, Basil gets to work. And thus begins Netflix’s new period drama, The Dig.
Confession time: watching Basil ignore Edith’s gut feeling about the bigger mound and instead painstakingly set to work on the three smaller ones can feel more than a little tedious. Because you bet your bottom dollar that the film doesn’t shy away from the minutiae that comes hand-in-hand with a big archaeological project (fans of Time Team and Antiques Roadshow, however, will no doubt be enthralled).
When one shocking mistake almost costs Basil his life, though, he finally sets to work on the main mound and realises that he’s tackling almost single-handedly a find of national, even international, importance: an Anglo-Saxon burial ship dating to around the sixth century.
The discovery becomes a focal point for a battle of ownership between Edith and the archaeological establishment – which leads to the British Museum charging in with their own team to join the dig.
Finally, some drama! And it comes in the form of married archaeologists Stuart (Ben Chaplin) and Peggy Piggott (Lily James), who are clearly just… well, they’re clearly just scraping by as a couple thanks to their mutual interest in ancient history.
Watch the trailer for Netflix’s The Dig below:
It’s not that Stuart doesn’t take Peggy seriously; it’s that he takes her too seriously. He refuses to use her preferred nickname, stubbornly referring to her throughout as Margaret. He doesn’t see a problem with the fact that the local pub has stuck them in a room with two single beds. He barely treats her to more than a peck on the cheek. And, yeah, he’s point-blank horrified when he walks in on her naked in the bath.
Is it any wonder, then, that Peggy finds her gaze drifting towards Edith’s impossibly attractive cousin Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn), who’s signed up for the RAF – against his cousin’s wishes – and happily photographing the Sutton Hoo excavation as he waits to be called up?
Soapy romance aside, it’s this – the looming threat of war – that makes The Dig feel so relevant to all of us sitting at home watching. Because we, all of us, now know what it’s like to live on the cusp of a global crisis. To crack jokes about macabre matters, to ignore the headlines we don’t wish to see, and to pretend like mad that nothing bad is really happening.
Rory (the only character in the film not based on a real person, but an amalgam of all those poor young men who went to their deaths in battle) is swept up by it all.
Like so many of us when we approached the first lockdown, he’s abuzz with a heady mix of nerves and anticipation – and almost excited to try something novel. He assumes it will be a fleeting chapter in his life; something he’ll look back on, years later, as a fun story to tell the grandchildren.
The reality, of course, proves very different. And the horrifying truth of what he’s really signed himself up for soon nosedives into him when he least expects it.
Rory’s is not the only storyline that feels tied to our own realities, though; Edith and Peggy’s, too, feel laden with extra meaning as they are challenged to take stock of the lives they’re living, to do what they must to ensure their own happiness right now, and to reconsider their thoughts on death and the afterlife.
Because, “if 1,000 years passed in an instant, what would be left of us?”
It’s a question that may sit heavy on some viewers, particularly now. However, this melancholy is tempered by the film’s overarching message – that of the wonders we can uncover when we work together, and the hope that comes from examining our pasts (humanity has endured so much already, after all).
“I hope people take a positive message from it, about what we can achieve through common endeavour and determination.”
Mulligan echoes this sentiment, telling Sky News: “[The coronavirus pandemic] isn’t a war, but there’s this massive fear in society at the moment and trepidation, and the way people have largely come together through that does echo the way we’ve dealt with big crises in the past.
“I think there’s something quite affirming about that. When we’re all put to the test in difficult times we come together as a community – that’s certainly been my experience.”
So, is The Dig worth your time?
Well, if you’re looking for an adrenaline-fuelled ride, or a film packed with drama, then no, this is probably not the film for you.
If, however, you’re looking for something quietly impactful – and quietly impactful with excellent character-driven performances and glorious cinematography at that – then it’s well worth giving The Dig a whirl.
Because, while it takes a great deal of digging to uncover those beautiful surprises at the film’s centre, they truly do shine all the brighter for the work you’re willing to put in. And they’ll stay with you long after the credits roll, too.
The Dig is streaming on Netflix from 29 January.
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.