Fuelled by the relentless Netflix publicity machine, Simon Stone’s ‘The Dig’ was ironically not a hard film to unearth. In the past, at the very best I tolerated the ‘period drama’ genre, so I found myself surprised to be genuinely engaged by the film, a surprise compounded by the sheer amount of screen time given over to trowels and English mud. To my partisan eyes this was the antidote to the gossip and triviality of Downton – a story about a genteel country house, set in a picturesque countryside, and not a single corset in sight!
For those unfamiliar with the story of Sutton Hoo – THE archaeological event of the 20th century, Basil Brown, (played impeccably by Ralph Fiennes,who has an admirable crack at the broad vowels of the Suffolk accent) – is hired by Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) to excavate the strange mounds on her property. What follows is a discovery of titanic proportions, and Stone does an excellent job at constructing around it a human story of genuine emotional depth that rarely succumbs to cliché. Brown, despite his impressive skill is not a trained archeologist and tensions arise when the director of the British Museum intervenes. It is to Stone’s credit that he does not overplay the maverick/establishment dynamic that exists between Brown and the conventionally trained archaeologists, instead subtly rendering the dynamic between the individuals. In an exemplifying moment, Brown remains stoically silent whilst being informed by the pompous antihero of the piece – Charles Philips, (predictably a Cambridge man that he is surplus to requirements. Instead, Brown lets his talent speak for itself, as his soil-sniffing skills allow him to disprove Phillips and correctly date the burial ship as Anglo-Saxon. A much better way to stick it to the man!
The advent of war is another issue which could have been clumsily handled, but instead it is woven neatly into the tension between mortality and legacy that drives the film forwards. As the RAF rehearses sorties in the skies above Sutton Hoo, the force of war prepares to deal the same death as was once experienced by the human soul lying buried in the earth below. Stone creates a pressing feeling that life is fleeting, and the day must be seized, which is encapsulated in a romantic subplot which allows Lily James to demonstrate rather more depth than she did as one third of the Dynamos in Mamma Mia Two…
This tension is also displayed by Mulligan’s marvellous portrayal of Edith Pretty’s quiet anguish, as health problems assail her own vitality. The fragility of her life is both confirmed and rendered irrelevant by the discovery of the buried ship. We feel her frailty as we learn that the struts of the vessel, once hewn from wood, are now discernible only by their imprint, yet all this seems unimportant when, piece by piece the splendid complexity of the buried past is exhumed. To Pretty on the eve of war, and to us in the present day, Sutton Hoo demonstrates the power of human beings to live on centuries after their bodies have died and decomposed.
Despite this, little camera attention is afforded to the finds themselves. We are granted occasional flashes of opulent jewellery, perhaps a glimmer of seventh century precious metal. The regalia does its work off screen, shimmering in the background as the human agents of the story take centre stage. However, on the rare occasions that the Anglo-Saxon bling was fully in shot, I found myself transfixed. Having plodded through numerous articles on the subject, rejoicing when half of a 20 page article is given over to footnotes yet never quite understanding ‘numismatics’, it was oddly delightful to see a distinguished archaeologist shed his haughtiness and display childlike wonder about a Merovingian coin!
In fact, ‘childlike wonder’ underplays it. It is hard to imagine quite how revolutionary a discovery this would have been at the time. The extraordinary sophistication and geographical range of the treasures – the Syrian fabrics, the garnets from South Asia, the silver dish from Constantinople – took a sledgehammer to received wisdom about the ‘Dark Ages’ and shed light on the refined globalism of old English kings. This seems especially relevant in a modern Britain that is frequently neurotic about its relationship with the continent, and I saw it as a clever riposte to the UKIP-esque insularity that permeates public debate. However it is a worrying possibility that the film may be used to propagate a narrative of English cultural superiority and used to bolster divisive rhetoric. Indeed, Nigel Farage did exactly this upon the release of Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’ in 2017 when he took to Twitter and urged Britain’s youth to watch a film that he had viewed and misinterpreted through rose-tinted glasses. Instead, as you watch ‘The Dig’, remember the words of Richard Ayoade on behalf of HSBC: “We are part of something far, far bigger”.
Setting politics aside, ‘The Dig’ is at heart a human story, and Stone has done a marvellous job of emotionally connecting a long dead Anglo -Saxon with the human beings uncovering the mysteries of his past within their contemporary world of deep uncertainty.