Since Netflix first announced The Dig, I have been anxiously awaiting its arrival. Long before I began my journey into entertainment journalism, I received a degree in historic preservation. I have stared into the face of the gilded Sutton Hoo helmet on display at the British Museum, but I never once stopped to think about the people who made the remarkable discovery until The Dig.
Based on John Preston’s 2007 historical novel by the same name, The Dig is based on the true story of one of the most remarkable Anglo-Saxon discoveries in Great Britain. The screenplay, written by Moira Buffini, was directed by Australian director Simon Stone. While the film is set against the backdrop of the Sutton Hoo discovery, the focus is on the interpersonal relationships between the characters.
Netflix's The Dig Excavates Both Human Emotions and the Historic Sutton Hoo Site
The contributions of self-taught archeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) have long gone unrecognized, swept under the rug by classical academia. In 1938, Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) hired Brown to excavate the mounds on her property, which uncovered the impressions of a 27-metre-long ship that dated back to the 7th century AD. Brown, with the aid of Edith’s nephew Rory (Johnny Flynn), continues excavating the site until news of the discovery gets out and the stuffed-shirts of the British Museum sweep in to take over the site, bringing with them the core of the ensemble cast.
While the film is based on a true story, Stone was undeterred by age discrepancies and minor changes that made for a more engaging story. The real Basil Brown was a decade younger at the time of the discovery than Ralph Fiennes, while Edith Pretty was a decade older than Carey Mulligan. Johnny Flynn portrays a fictionalized nephew and Peggy (Lily James) and Stuart Piggott (Ben Chaplin) did not end their marriage until the late 1950s.
The Dig exists in two acts; the first act centers around Edith and Basil, while the second act centers around Peggy and Rory. Edith is terminally ill and declining throughout the course of the film, while Rory finds himself preparing to face the certain-death of war. Basil has an unremarkable relationship with his wife May, while Peggy is faced with a loveless marriage to her husband and colleague Stuart. One pair chooses mutual respect, while the other chooses to seize the day before it is too late.
The Dig progresses at a leisurely rate which, while accurate for the plodding pace of most archeological digs, may prove to be monotonous for some audiences. The characters, though remarkable for their contributions to history, are not particularly groundbreaking. The film is quintessentially British; from the quiet melancholia in the scenery, to the sensible 1930s attire, to the restrained romances, and the looming dark cloud of impending war — it hits every beat.
Every scene was visually appealing, largely in part to the production design by Maria Djurkovic and the gorgeous array of costumes by designer Alice Babidge. If you get a chance to watch documentaries about Brown’s discovery, many of the scenes in The Dig feel as though they could have been pulled directly from footage from the 30s and 40s. The attention to historical accuracy and details does not go unnoticed.
Stone makes some definitive and interesting choices with a handful of scenes throughout the film. At times the dialogue is disconnected from the scenes it plays over. The tactic is jarring at first, as it is not exactly narration, but it works for the tone. Almost as if these moments of human experience exist encapsulated in their own bubble even as the conversation moves on. In a way, this mirrors Brown’s later dialogue about how humanity is part of something continuous.
“From the first human handprint on a cave wall we’re part of something continuous. So we don’t really die.”
For a film about a pivotal archeological discovery, The Dig does its best storytelling while excavating the complicated human emotions just beneath the surface.
The Dig is rated PG-13 and premieres on Netflix on January 29.