Back in 1939 as the world prepared to enter one of the darkest times in modern history with World War II an amateur archeologist named Basil Brown was hired by a woman named Edith Pretty to excavate burial mounds in Sutton Hoo near her home. What he found would go on to become one of the greatest archeological finds ever including numerous Anglo-Saxon artifacts and a largely undisturbed burial ship. The findings remain in the British Museum to this day but only in recent years has Brown’s name been associated with the find. Now the story of his discovery has been memorialized in a new Netflix film “The Dig” which see Ralph Fiennes portray Brown while Pretty is played by Carey Mulligan and famed archeologist Peggy Piggott portrayed by Lily James. While the real-life digs are the core inspiration for the film, the plot is taken from that 2007 dramatized novelization and reimagining of the events called, of course, “The Dig” written by John Preston. While “The Dig” gets off to a rough start, it quickly evolved into an engaging narrative exploring the importance of discovery, both of the self and of history.
“The Dig” didn’t have the best start for me despite moving at a brisk pace. It doesn’t take long for us to see Basil Brown arriving at the Pretty estate and discussing the potential for discovery on the land. For about half an hour it felt like I was being thrown as much information and exposition as possible to set up the relationship between Brown and Pretty, Pretty’s personal illnesses, Brown’s struggle to be recognized as a credible archeologist and the setting of just before the dawn of the Second World War. Thankfully after setting all of this up and throwing everything it can at the audience “The Dig” finally decides to take its time allowing us some engaging insight into Brown and Pretty’s partnership as well as their personal lives once the ship itself is unearthed. Eventually other significant figures from the excavation are brought in including Peggy Piggott who unearths the first artifact on site and kickstarts the excitement of the deeper discovery within the ship. While the story is set in the backdrop of the dawn of World War II and explores the discovery of an essential part of history, it’s the human exploration that shines as we get to see the likes of Pretty, Brown and Piggott evolve and gain new understandings of themselves over the course of the excavation.
This is the core theme that made this movie worth watching for me. On the cusp of one of the worst wars in modern history while discovering details of a famously undocumented era of our past, the people in this movie come to revelations of themselves. Brown is forced to surrender his ego for the sake of discovery understanding it’s not about the credit and being appreciated but about the significance of the find and what it means for understanding our past. Pretty is coming to grips with mortality and wanting the history discovered on her property to better the world. Piggott comes to grips with her failing marriage with her husband Stuart Piggott (Ben Chaplin) through, as far as I can find, fictionalized implications that his sexual interests may be elsewhere adding an LGBTQ theme to the story as well. All these people are put in scenarios that force them to reevaluate what makes them happy, thus finding the simple joys of life that may never be remembered by the world at large but makes their own personal existences that much more worthwhile. The simplicity of these character-driven storylines doesn’t overshadow the significance and fascination of discovery and the actors all do a fine job turning in very human and resonant performances that, while dramatized, make them relatable and believable.
Aside from that, there’s visual beauty to behold on this film as well. The reconstruction of the ship excavation site is spot on and the backdrop of Suffolk is breathtaking. We rarely escape these visuals as much of the movie is set on Pretty’s land which provides a gorgeous aesthetic throughout the picture. The use of handheld camera techniques also adds to the overall feel of the film, often giving it this documentary-like style that perfectly fits the story since we are watching history be unearthed. While “The Dig” started off a little off for me rushing its way through establishing the scenario, characters and setting when it finally slowed down to allowed me to enjoy the scenery, the characters and the discoveries being unearthed I found myself truly enjoying it. Director Simon Stone, who also directed 2015’s “The Daughter”, shows a great respect for all elements of the story and while there may be a few too many creative liberties for some to embrace, overall, the visuals, the acting, and the deeper elements hidden beneath the surface add up to a competent and enjoyable dramatic interpretation of the famous find of 1939.
Although it’s not a perfect or completely accurate interpretation of the real-life events that inspired it, “The Dig” has more than its fair share of great moments and elements to help it shine. The performances add great layers to the characters as we see several of them evolve and learn the simple beauties of life while unearthing the lasting beauty of history. Its core message shows us that while many things will remain after we are gone like physical objects, we as people will be rotted and gone and who we are will likely not be remembered by the world at large but by those few people we manage to impact in our lives. That shouldn’t scare us, but rather inspire us to be better and more perfect people in our own lives and find what makes us happy. We should worry less about leaving a larger impact and more about leaving more personal legacies. The simple joys of discovery can be found both in the larger scale of human history as well as with the self where we come to a better understanding of who we are and where we feel we need to be. These are important themes made even more poignant by tying them to one of the greatest archaeological finds in modern times.