On the eve of World War II, a British widow hires a self-taught archaeologist to dig up mysterious formations on her land, leading to a staggering find.
In 1939 Basil Brown started work excavating a burial mound on land belonging to Edith Pretty, at Sutton Hoo. His astonishing discoveries – the imprint of a large boat, a treasure-filled burial chamber of a nameless local king – turned on its head accepted wisdom about the so-called Dark Ages, the belief that the land the Romans left behind in the 5th century turned into an insular, cultural desert without them.
That title is so dull – in a film about the past telling its stories, why couldn’t they have at least gone for Look Hoo’s Talking? – but The Dig is a gem of a movie, weaving themes of life, death and the shadows we leave behind within a 1930s Suffolk field.
The already well-documented, painstaking excavation of those treasures is not just fascinating, but genuinely thrilling – the relationship struggles of the people involved just as shattering, even as they stand in the shadow of the gold they dig up.
Like that king, Brown is a man who knows his worth. He refuses to work for Edith at her original rate of pay, which she’s based on his previous excavation jobs with the local museum, and later walks off the site when usurpers from the British Museum insult him.
“Time lost its meaning,” says Brown, quoting Howard Carter on entering Tutankhamen’s tomb 3000 years after it had been sealed. The Dig is about the importance of our links across time, and part of that is giving people back their stories, whether Sutton Hoo’s king or the real-life Basil, who was, until relatively recently, written out of history by more establishment interests.
In a film about time, the villain of the piece is time itself. The sense of urgency grows daily. Britain is preparing for war, and once hostilities are declared all archeological investigations will cease. Just as Sutton Hoo’s link with the past is uncovered, at a time when a country will often try to anchor itself to its glorious history those glories might have to be re-buried without proper investigation. And for some of the people involved, time is also running out.
Burial kept Sutton Hoo’s treasures from us for 1500 years but it also kept them safe. As Edith (Carey Mulligan) walks through London, famous statues are walled-up behind sandbags, to be revealed at some unspecified date in the future when all this is over.
The working class Basil (Ralph Fiennes) arrives at her estate on his bicycle. An expert on astronomy and archaeology, he aims to help ordinary people make sense of their place in time and space. His employer, while increasingly pale and careworn, still has the self-confidence and clout that only generations of money can buy, positioning herself as a polite yet firm wall between Basil and men who dismiss him.
Mulligan and Fiennes excel as a couple whose mutual respect and understanding hides tiny flutterings that it could be more, their performances devoid of class clichés without ignoring how much class determines who is remembered. (Monica Dolan as Basil’s wife May deserves a special mention; May is his anchor as he falls in love with each new archaeological discovery, waiting for him to come home.)
Basil and his team initially dig under golden sunlight, until the heavens open (the other villain of the piece is rain). He’s assisted in his work on the mounds by Edith’s young son Robert (an endearing Archie Barnes), a boy who happily channels both the Vikings of the past and the “space pilots” of the future in his home-made cloak and tinfoil helmet. For him, as for Basil, they are cut from the same cloth.
As Basil carefully uncovers Sutton Hoo’s past, Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) appears from the British Museum, determined to take over a site of such national importance. (Stott takes a role that could easily be played as a pantomime villain and shows that the fuel for his desperation is as much a love of the past as it is for Basil.)
Phillips brings in Stuart Piggott (Ben Chaplin) and his young wife Peggy Preston (Lily James), who is shocked to discover she’s been invited because she’s so light she won’t damage the site. Her husband is uninterested in her until she finds the first golden jewel; soon an array of treasures glitter in wooden trays, nestling on pillows of emerald moss.
Though notes from past, present and future collide, this isn’t a film of flashbacks and glimpses of things to come. Set squarely in 1939, Moira Buffini’s superbly balanced script, based on John Preston’s novel of the same name, weaves personal stories, anecdotes and an impending world war with questions about love in the shadow of life, death and dying – as well as examining our own transience in the light of the traces we leave behind.
Sometimes Edith and Basil appear as black shadows, she against the papered wall of her elegant old house, he against the sky; shadows like the boat he is uncovering that has actually long since decayed. In the field, cinematographer Mike Eley often bathes scenes in an autumnal light that gives an otherworldly quality as if briefly out of time.
The permanent rites with which we mark death turn out to be not so permanent after all; burial is meant to be forever but is sometimes just slumber. “We’re standing in someone’s graveyard,” comments Basil before digging it up. 1500 years after an unnamed king was buried, and on the brink of a modern war, his existence and culture burst back into dazzling life.
Like a worm in a plastic jar layered with different coloured sand, the stories wriggle through the demarcation lines, uncovering the reach of the past and our need for it, how life repeats itself and how similar we are. Edith arranges roses at her husband’s grave, tidying up dead flowers and scattered petals, while on her own land lies a king buried with his boat and his riches. Basil talks of Henry VIII digging into those mounds, which stunned me, but why should it? We are all fascinated by our pasts, not least kings calling to kings.
The radio announcement that the UK is at war with Germany never fails to chill, even as the archaeologists celebrate their astonishing findings. “The Dark Ages are no longer dark,” says Phillips as he explains Sutton Hoo’s revelations to an assembled group of locals and schoolchildren standing around the uncovered ship, as in the 20th century darkness falls across Europe and another world war begins.
The Dig is streaming on Netflix from 29 January.
Read my very spoilery article – Unearthing links and love in The Dig.
Watch the trailer for The Dig: