The Dig, released on Netflix on 29 January, is an adaptation of John Preston’s 2007 novel, documenting the largely truthful events surrounding the Sutton Hoo excavation of 1939 and starring Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan as the two protagonists, ‘excavator’ Basil Brown and landowner Edith Pretty. The film combines perfectly the intrigue and wonder that surrounded such a ground-breaking historical discovery with the highly complex and emotional backstory to the dig itself, exploring the enduring grip that the past and the dead still hold on the present day.
I must admit that when I first heard about the release of The Dig, it immediately piqued my interest. The intelligence and sensitivity of Netflix presented itself once again in an ad in the paper: an old-style, yellowed, black and white newspaper article, set against the more modern headlines and text. As a history student my eyes were caught by this rather alternative way of engaging an audience, as the ad, with a picture of Ralph Fiennes, trowel in hand at the top, with an archaically worded report underneath, seemed to be catering for a very particular audience.
That audience is people like myself, from a family which is largely humanities based, and a brother for whom archaeology consumes nearly his entire existence. When I sat down to the film, therefore, I was expecting a calm evening of benign relatability, and was not wholly prepared for the emotional rollercoaster that was to come.
It should have the breadth to cater to virtually any audience, and will grip you for the entirety of its two-hour duration
There are certainly sections, phrases and parts of the film which do cater perfectly to the audience mentioned above – mentions of iron-gaters, a comparable dig at Snape and compacted sand had my brother writhing in his seat. But by embracing war history, astronomy, romance and the conflict between elite and local knowledge, the film achieves so much more than that. It should, in my opinion, have the breadth to cater to virtually any audience, and will grip you for the entirety of its two-hour duration.
The success of the film is in how it interweaves two starkly different subplots to create a satisfying whole, testament to the skill of Moira Buffini’s writing and the emotional dexterity of the two leads, Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan.
The first of the two subplots runs throughout the film, and that is the progression of the famous dig at Sutton Hoo. The film largely sticks to the facts in this respect, perfectly conveying the building tension and anticipation as it becomes ever clearer how ground-breaking and wonderous the dig was. In this respect, the plot follows the activities of Basil Brown, an amateur excavator who, at the request of Edith Pretty, begins to excavate the burial mounds that lie on her land.
From here the excitement surrounding the dig starts to build, as the outlines of a ship, and then a burial chamber, start to reveal themselves
Initially, Brown begins on one of the smaller mounds, but switches to the largest once he realises its intriguing oval nature, and that robbers of centuries past had been digging in the wrong place. From here the excitement surrounding the dig starts to build, as the outlines of a ship, and then a burial chamber, start to reveal themselves.
It is here that the film comes into its own, making the experience of combing back the soil to reveal what’s underneath a genuinely entertaining one. The astounding finds that the dig revealed changed history, showing the Anglo-Saxon Dark Ages to be full of light and civilisation. The film makes the ground-breaking nature of that discovery clear in the building tension as more is uncovered, with Stefan Gregory’s soundtrack succeeding in gripping the audience in a sense of eager anticipation.
The second subplot involves the deeper emotive backstory to the dig, which serves to augment the story of discoveries themselves. At first there is the hint of a love story between Brown and Pretty, but the emergence of Brown’s wife (never a good sign) means that this is subsumed to the deeper attachment that grows between Peggy Piggott (Lily James) and Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn). James and Flynn play the reserved but passionate relationship of the two excellently, but more important factor in their affair is the background of war.
The war provides a background fitting to the progression of the plot, as the idea and intrigue that surrounds mortality and death is at the film’s heart. At one point, Brown says ‘it speaks, dunnit, the past’, and this message, when put in its wider context of the death and destruction that has affected Pretty’s life and will affect the country as a whole over the next six years, serves to leave a tear in your eye as the film comes to an end. The message is ultimately one of hope, of our enduring attachment to the earth and the people who came before us, without ever turning from the constant threat of the finality of death that lies before us all.
This all builds an intense and intriguing storyline that goes far beyond its remit as a film purely on the subject of an archaeological dig. Mention must also be made here of the outstanding performances of Fiennes and Mulligan.
Fiennes’ portrayal of the humble, reserved, but staunchly committed Suffolk-man is outstanding, with his accent and mannerisms making the resemblance to some of my own relatives almost uncanny. The sadness that lies at the heart of Mulligan’s character, however, combined with the excitement that surrounds the dig, makes her performance if anything more convincing, as expressing the dichotomy that epitomises the heart of the film.
I doubt that this film will be one for the ages, as its rather niche subject and very British core means it is unlikely to appeal to the American audience. But I for one hope that it continues to be watched and appreciated, drawing everyone to the wonder of the past and the mystery of the earth that lies beneath us.