The discovery of the Sutton Hoo hoard in 1939 as the nation was on the brink of war was England’s ‘Tutankhamun moment’, and the unearthing of the many “wondrous things” from the Suffolk soil marked a significant moment in archaeology and the understanding and appreciation of Anglo-Saxon society, culture and art. The Dig, a newly-released film by Netflix starring Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes, is an understated yet powerful and thrilling portrayal of the discovery of the Sutton Hoo burial ship and its treasures – a hoard equal in historical importance to the tomb of the boy Pharaoh.
Beautifully shot, with wonderful panoramas of the broad landscapes and big skies of Suffolk, which reminded me of childhood visits to Orford, Aldeburgh, Woodbridge and Sutton Hoo itself (though I was tiny at the time so don’t remember it), much of the film’s power comes from its understated intensity. It has a Merchant-Ivory attention to its period details and settings, and the leading characters are sensitively drawn: Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown, a local archaeologist – or “excavator” as he prefers to call himself – has a convincing Suffolk accent and a taciturn, deferential manner with just a hint of Paul Whitehouse’s character Ted from The Fast Show, though this is quickly forgotten as Brown’s quiet persistence and experience shines through.
Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty is beautiful, elegant but lonely. In another director’s hands, she might have fallen for Brown and we would be treated to some gratuitous Mellors-Lady Chatterley moments, complete with suggestive references to Mrs Pretty’s “mounds”, but instead feelings remain largely as buried as the treasure, and this avoids the film straying into mawkish sentimentality. Much of the power of the film’s narrative comes not only from the gradual revealing of the burial ship and its hoard, but also from what is left unsaid, which allows the viewer to focus on the main drama as it unfolds.
When a pompous archaeologist and his team from the British Museum turn up at the site (led by Ken Stott and assisted by Ben Chaplin and Lily James), we sense the tension between the professional “expert” and the “amateur” excavator. Brown, who left school at 12, and who is largely self-taught, proves far more experienced, able to read the ground and what lies beneath far better than the team from London. Stott’s character wants to take over the site and run it his way, but Edith Pretty is having none of it and retains Brown as the site leader. His devotion to the dig site, and to her and her fatherless son, is touching and thought-provoking, and makes for an interesting examination of the value and definition of “expertise” and the intrusion of academia on those who have a wealth of experience gained over many years learning “on the job”. Are the British Museum people necessarily more “expert” merely because of their association with that institution? This film suggests not.
And set against the backdrop of impending war, the film also subtly explores the importance of preserving objects, culture, heritage and values – not just for the nation, but for individuals and communities.
The Dig is an adaptation of John Preston’s historical novel about the Sutton Hoo treasure and is a hugely enjoyable film made with subtle sensitivity. Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes are both excellent and their understated, modest presence lends greater heft to the drama. The excitement of the discoveries also illuminates a period in our history which was bright and beautiful, as evidenced by the exquisitely-crafted jewellery, armour and other remarkable objects, now on permanent display at the British Museum
The Dig is available via Netflix