'The Dig' seeks to do as its subjects did, bringing a forgotten history into the present. Deputy Arts & Culture Editor Emilia Bryant reviews a new Netflix drama about the Sutton Hoo excavation, starring Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes.
For any of us having grown up in Southern England, Sutton Hoo brings flashbacks to rainy primary school trips spent trudging through muddy, unremarkable hills. A decade later, following its starring role in The Dig, I realise this couldn’t have been further from the truth.
The new Netflix release focuses on the excavation of the famous Sutton Hoo treasure, based on the novel of the same name and the historical events which inspired it. It follows as Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) hires self-taught archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to excavate burial mounds on her property, a project which serves as a catalyst for the unfolding emotional drama. Its style is refreshingly subtle, the beauty of its characters and landscapes found in their understatement, and the subject lends itself to the issues of mortality and transience explored in the film. A careful effort has been put into its authenticity, even down to the local Suffolk band playing in one party scene, the hiring of Suffolk-born actors’ assistants, and the dialect coach who painstakingly honed the actors’ accent away from the generic west-country lilt of less careful films.
With not a green-screen in sight, The Dig takes place among the rolling grasslands of Suffolk’s countryside, a natural arena left to speak for itself through beautifully understated wide shots. It is a seemingly formless, ageless backdrop perfectly suited to a film in exploration of human impermanence through the ages. The unassuming hills embody the endearingly humble, stoical nature of its protagonist, Basil Brown, who does not seek status and has little time for frivolous social etiquette. He shares an intimate understanding of the land and can locate soil’s origin in the region simply by its taste, a relationship presented visually at one point as he literally finds himself immersed in the soil following a mound collapse.
At its finest points, the film demonstrates the passion of its characters without explicitly spelling it out. We see Edith silently grieving at her husband’s grave, a monogrammed suitcase under the bed, and hints of the dutiful sacrifice she has made for her ill father. Similarly, the underplayed affection between Basil and his long-suffering wife is shown by the smallest touches on one another’s arms, stacks of hand-written letters, and murmuring about how to go about drinking champagne so as to fit in at a garden party.
It is these moments of brilliant understatement which have drawn criticism for the contrastingly clumsy portrayal of Peggy and Rory’s relationship, added seemingly for the sake of an inevitable love interest. I don’t disagree with this, however in a film which emphasises the transience of life and the passions which make it worth living, it doesn’t seem to me completely out of order that a young love story could flourish in the midst.
Although The Dig lacks a clear sense of peril to overcome, its dramatic tension comes from the broader, unavoidable threat of mortality itself. The characters are not faced with external opposition to the dig, but rather the transience of their own lives which the human remains represent. This reminder lurks in the background as military planes and radio broadcasts cast the looming shadow of WWII on the characters’ future, after which the dig will be forced to stop. Each character faces mortality in their turn: future pilot, Rory at a fatal plane crash on the site, Edith in the deterioration of her physical health, and Basil in his near-death experience in the mound collapse.
The threat of impermanence here is met with the hope of mutual humanity which unites the past and present and gives meaning to the time separating them. Edith recalls Howard Carter’s account of an ancient yet perfectly preserved human fingerprint in Tutankhamun’s tomb, as if “time has lost its meaning”. Just as Basil is uncovered from the collapsed mound of earth like the Anglo-Saxons beneath him, the past intrudes on the present through the common humanity shared by us and those who came before us; we learn that the ‘dark ages’ were not so dark after all. Humanity which transcends time is reflected in Rory’s photography, which in capturing the past drives the drama of his relationship with Peggy in the present, and in Robert Pretty’s make-believe games which flit between the past, present, and future, seen most beautifully as the family plays together in the excavated remains of the burial-boat one evening.
The fact that the film was made at all is testament to the work that has been done in uncovering and remembering the life and works of Edith and Basil – figures who, until now, had been largely forgotten. Therefore, although Basil faces the reality that “I won’t even be a footnote” and we learn that Edith never lived long enough to see her public exhibition open, the film is not a tragedy. Instead, it answers its own existential dilemma by acting as an artifact of remembrance. The film serves the same purpose as the dig itself in showing us that this strand of humanity will be remembered, even if it has to be uncovered years later.