This is very spoilery about the ending of The Dig, as I go a bit further into the reach of Sutton Hoo and the relationships in the film. If you’re after my five-star review, it’s here.
It’s ironic that the boat and burial chamber of an Anglo-Saxon king, a man descended from Germanic invaders, with cultural and trading links all over the world, is disinterred at the beginning of a war with Germany where invasion is a looming threat to this island.
The riches Sutton Hoo gave up are unique in this country. Yet despite the gleaming gold and detailed jewellery uncovered, that famous Anglo-Saxon helmet may be the most recognisable find. Empty black eyeholes staring back at us remind us that while we know more than we did about the past, we can’t know everything – a warning against hubris if ever there was one. (We don’t even know for sure who wore it, though King Rædwald of East Anglia is a good candidate.) Still, what the archaeologists in 1939 uncovered provides us with a new, stronger line to the past, to help us and future generations make sense of ourselves, which is the reason archaeologist Basil Brown does what he does.
The Dig is set in 1939 as Britain quivers on the brink. War is declared in the September, though it’s eight months before Churchill will become leader, with his famous “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat,” speech to the House of Commons.
I don’t know what, if anything, Neville Chamberlain’s government did with the news coming out of Sutton Hoo, though I can easily imagine how post-Brexit Boris would have twisted it now: long-dead kings allow good leaders to call on their courage and bad ones to bask in their reflected glory.
Young men are receiving call-up papers and the skies are dotted with warplanes. This is a war that will be fought in the air, though they are training in WW1 planes. One falls out of the sky into the river nearby, the pilot dead before Edith’s cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn), there to help Basil Brown with the dig, can reach him.
I focused most in my review on time, though love is as big a theme; they are of course entwined, as the dig itself casts its spell over everyone involved.
Combined with the impending war, its influence adds a sense of quiet frenzy to everyone’s actions, even if they don’t all act on the changes in them. Unspoken infatuations, a youthful marriage breaking down, a soldier going off to war spending the night with his new love, a dying woman looking forward to being reunited in the stars with her dead husband. “If a thousand years were to pass in an instant, what would be left of us?” Edith’s cousin Rory asks the married Peggy (Lily James) as they quickly fall for each other, knowing he will soon be gone and may not make it back.
We don’t know if Rory survives (he’s an imagined character though Basil, Edith and her young son Robert are based on real people). In the film he goes to war, first spending one night with Peggy after she leaves her husband, who has taken to heart Edith’s advice that she seize the day.
Edith (Carey Mulligan) is dying and she knows it, visibly weakening through the film as she struggles with her fears for Robert without her. Near the end she spends the night in the earthy boat under the stars, tucked up in a bed of cushions and throws, looking up at the sky as Robert tells her about an afterlife in space and Basil stands guard. Edith’s husband Frank is long dead; Robert is only 9.
She fights for Basil (Ralph Fiennes) too, every step of the way, though near the end the focus shifts to Basil and Robert easing her own journey from life to death.
Basil is the type of man to become infatuated with every dig, though there seems a tiny glimmer of more with Edith Pretty. She always backs him up to other historians, wielding her class and wealth like a sword. Basil’s wife May (Monica Dolan) is the unsung heroine, waiting patiently in the background, aware he’s fallen for the boat – a “Viking mistress,” she calls it – and quite possibly Edith too. May also has to remind him why he does what he does, to give children in the future a link back to their past.
Stories and anecdotes in The Dig are links in a necklace. Peggy tells Rory about a nightingale which learnt to mimic classical cello music. Word spreads and a radio programme records the nightingale, whereupon listeners confirm that nightingales in their own gardens learn from the first nightingale to sing like that too. It’s a metaphor for the exponential spread of knowledge and history once the word is out, particularly the democratising work Basil undertakes.
The British Museum takes over the dig, though the inquest – necessary to determine who owns the jewels – awards them to Edith. With the treasures removed, Basil refills the boat, which is really a fragile cast of the rotted-away wood. He lines it with hessian and then branches of greenery, before re-burying it under the earth, leaving everything looking as he found it, though changed inside too.
Edith donates all the finds to the British Museum, and we find out at the end they too were buried; kept safe in a London underground station until after the war.
The Dig is streaming on Netflix now – read my five-star review. It’s based on the book of the same name by John Preston.