Much publicised over the last few weeks has been Netflix’s original movie offering, THE DIG, based on the John Preston novel of the same name. The Dig stars Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes and tells the story of the discovery of a burial ship, probably that of King Raedweld of the Anglo Saxons, in the mounds of Sutton Hoo during 1938 and 1939.
The real dig itself was massively important in the history of archaeology in the UK and globally. It shed a light on a period about which there was little known and was key in establishing the history of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia and the early Anglo-Saxon period. It also uncovered some stunning examples of Anglo-Saxon metal work, most of which are currently held on display in the British Museum.
There have been several digs at Sutton Hoo over the last thousand years but the film centres around the work of Basil Brown and Charles Phillips in the late 1930s. Fiennes plays the jaded but determined Brown, who is asked to excavated the burial mounds that lie within the grounds of Sutton Hoo House, owned by Edith Pretty and played here by Carey Mulligan.
These two form the core relationship in the film and it was refreshing to watch a story where the main protagonists have no romantic interest in one another. Indeed their relationship seems founded more upon a seeking a spiritual understanding of the world. Edith’s husband had died some years earlier, leaving her alone in a great house with her young son and servants.
I found it interesting that the film-makers assiduously avoided mention of the real-life Edith’s fascination with Spiritualism after her husband’s passing. Instead she muses on her own existence without the trappings of religious convention, which probably makes for more accessible story telling in this increasingly secular world.
Where Edith looks for reassurance that there is something of an after life in which she will be reunited with her loved ones, Brown takes a more pragmatic view of the world, that we are here for a short time before passing on to where ever; but also that we continue when we leave something of ourselves behind in this world in the artefacts, photographs and memories that remain.
Their respective views seem reconciled as the burial ship at Sutton Hoo is gradually uncovered, revealing not only solid and tangible artefacts but also tracings of the wooden ship itself, it’s wooden beams long since dissolved in the acidic soil but whose profile remains cast in sand. We move on from this world, leaving nothing of our direct human existence behind other than the objects and artefacts that accompanied us in life, tracings in the soil of who we once were.
The imminent outbreak of world war two hangs in the background of the story and adds additional menace to the many layers of the film. The world seems to have barely moved on from Anglo Saxon migrations in the fifth century to the potential German invasion in the twentieth. Edith’s cousin Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn) joins the dig while waiting for his call up to the RAF and falls for the intelligent and capable Peggy Preston (Lily James), herself trapped in a loveless marriage that acts as a great mirror to the artefacts trapped in the soil and which she herself releases during the dig1.
Ken Stott is great as Charles Phillips, the Cambridge educated and snobbish archaeologist who takes over Brown’s dig in 1939. Quite whether the real Charles Phillips was as snobbish and patronising as presented here remains unknown but the film makes a great point about the discordance between Brown’s approach and that of Phillips. The treatment of Peggy by the men on the dig also says much about the attitudes of the time towards women.
Other great performances in the movie come from Monica Dolan as Basil Brown’s wife, May, and Archie Barnes, who plays Edith’s son Robert with some sensitivity and emotional resonance. It would be remiss of me not to mention the absolutely gorgeous cinematography of Mike Eley, who captures the atmosphere and light of the Suffolk fields in all their mute greys and damp mistiness.
The film does a wonderful job, not only in it’s slightly fictionalised telling of the discovery at Sutton Hoo, but also in how it creates fascination with history and archaeology itself and how it links those elements to a deeper, more spiritual tale. It fills the viewer with a sense of wonder not just about the practicalities dig and the history of the items that were found there, but about the place of those people and those objects in our national story and about our place in the world. The film represents history not just as raw discovery and the telling of a story but as a meditation on something more, on life and death itself and what it means to us individually and as a people.
And that’s the reason behind my own enduring interest in the past.
THE DIG is now available to watch on Netflix.
1 – To be fair to history it should be noted that Peggy and Stuart Preston’s marriage did not in fact break down until the mid-1950s and it presentation here, along with the entire character of Rory Lomax, is part of the fiction.