Why do we dig through the earth looking for remains of those who lived before us long ago? Is it for posterity’s sake, for the people who will come we’re gone? Simple collective genetic curiosity for our fellow humans? Is it purely academic or is there some intrinsic burning impulse to unearth what was before in the hopes it might affect our own lives, in some invisible cosmic fashion? Simon Stones’s new Netflix original film The Dig is a phenomenal piece of work that asks these questions by showing us a varied ensemble of people working in the famed archeological dig of Sutton Hoo in Suffolk England, 1938, right before the outbreak of World War 2. The excavation is commissioned by widow landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), spearheaded by focused, workaholic expert Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) and assisted by others including junior archeologist Peggy Piggott (Lily James) and British Museum scout Charles Phillips (Ken Stott). While the film focuses intently on the dig and eventual unearthing of a wondrous find itself, what really stands out and feels important is the character work and how each person deals with issues like alienation, mortality and interpersonal relationships individually and as a group. Fiennes is wonderful as Basil Brown, a hard working guru who doesn’t want fame or acclaim, but simply has an organic passion for pulling back the curtain of history and illuminating the past. Mulligan is a staggering actress and displays great fragility and resilience in the face of looming adversity. James was such a bubbly presence in Mama Mia and she certainly draws attention but she’s much more restrained, subtle and heartbreakingly vulnerable here, stuck in a loveless marriage to a colleague (Ben Chaplin) and feeling trapped by circumstance. The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Mike Eley (Touching The Void) with a lyrical feel for the scope, lighting and spacial dynamics of rural England’s elegiac fields and hills, scored to emotional, melodic perfection by Stefan Gregory, competently directed by Stone and stunningly acted by the entire cast. The menace of incoming war is always present here as fighter planes frequently careen across the overcast skies, but somehow we feel safe in picturesque Suffolk with this intrepid band as they dig and search, not only in the dirt below them but amongst themselves, inwardly and in relation to each other to find peace, love, sense and some kind of solace in an often sorrowful world. It’s early in the year but this is already one of the strongest films so far.