Any other year, it would have been difficult to reconcile the minutiae of archaeological excavation against the backdrop of one of the century’s greatest military upheavals, but if the long 2020 has taught us anything, it is that the micro and macro always overlap. And so it was with the discovery of Sutton Hoo, the subject of Simon Stone’s understated The Dig, whose history-making unearthing spilled over into the initial rumblings of the Second World War.

This is Stone’s first period drama and it ticks all the requisite boxes, perhaps a little too neatly. RAF planes swing ominously through the sky as a thinly sketched affair between a pilot and an archaeologist blooms below. Costumes are lush, the score even lusher. Yet these aesthetic and narrative conventions are mere distractions – to which Stone himself sadly often falls prey – from a story of far greater grit than its glitter might suggest.

“You always told me your work ain’t about the past or even the present. It’s for the future,” Monica Dolan’s Mrs Brown tells her archaeologist husband (Ralph Fiennes), and in its boldest moments The Dig delves deep into this collision. The camera is often wide, swathes of landscape broken only by a single figure, or close to hands scrabbling in the dirt, locating the human within the historic. Carey Mulligan, who plays the landowning Edith Pretty, particularly anchors this entanglement, her taut, weary performance crafting a portrait of grief and loneliness that is inextricable from the desolation of the Anglo-Saxon burial ground.

Yet for all its complication of the relationship between the personal and epochal, The Dig nevertheless contains a tonal tension that is ultimately irreconcilable, its introspective lyricism undermined by predictable period beats. History, it turns out, is a more fraught creature than the one that Stone uncovers.



CAST: Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Johnny Flynn, Lily James, Ben Chaplin, Monica Dolan

DIRECTOR: Simon Stone

WRITERS: Moira Buffini, John Preston

SYNOPSIS: In 1939, a widowed landowner employs the services of an amateur archaeologist to excavate the burial mounds lying in her estate, precipitating the discovery of Sutton Hoo.