A Charming Interlude: Netflix’s The Dig

By Bryan & Heather

In an odd twist of fate, we recently learned of the existence of a new Netflix period drama not from Netflix’s overactive recommendation algorithms but through the Facebook post of a former professor. The Dig, starring Carrie Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes, promised the story of one of the most famous archaeological excavations in British history: Sutton Hoo. With Bryan’s affection for early medieval history, and having visited Sutton Hoo’s artifacts together at the British Museum in the spring of 2016, nothing more was needed to convince us to tune in to this charming, if slightly mundane, film.

In 1939, Suffolk landowner Edith Pretty (Mulligan) decides to undertake an excavation of mounds on her property near Sutton Hoo, hiring local self-taught excavator/archaeologist Basil Brown (Fiennes) to supervise the project. It quickly becomes apparent that something remarkable is hidden beneath Mrs. Pretty’s land, and while other more professional archaeologists figure the burial mounds must be of Viking origin, Brown cannot escape the feeling that what he has unearthed is something older. As the nation prepares to go to war with Germany, Pretty and Brown both deal with their own personal struggles while fighting to stop the domineering British Museum from taking over the dig and, with it, all the credit for the find.

It is always a pleasure to see Fiennes and Mulligan on-screen, and their understated performances bring a quiet verisimilitude to The Dig’s portrayal of life in the English countryside on the eve of the Second World War. Various subplots tie the personal stories of the characters into the larger historical trends of the day. The choice to make the British Museum the villain of the piece (if you can really call them a villain—more like a part-time antagonist) is an interesting one, too, seemingly bringing the institution’s predatory behavior throughout the empire home to roost in the fields of Suffolk.

Perhaps the oddest element of The Dig is its story structure. A charming movie it is, not least for the lack of any real tension or suspense in its plot. Indeed, the closest the movie comes to a climax is when a training aircraft crashes in the river near the dig, and some of the excavators (including Mrs. Pretty’s brother, himself about to become a pilot) go in to try to save the downed pilot—a scene entirely unrelated to the story of Sutton Hoo. Perhaps the announcement that the artifacts would indeed go to the British Museum was intended as the true climax, but it was so devoid of suspense both in film and in real life (we remembered well where we saw the collection) that it landed with barely a nod of our heads.

The Dig, then, may be the ultimate feel-good movie for fans of archaeology or mid-century period pieces: an extended romp through comforting English accents and landmark discoveries, with long-delayed credit to the original excavators the only conflict worth noting. Rest assured I will be looking for Brown and Petty’s names if I ever have the good fortune to return to the British Museum, though I don’t know if the same can be said of revisiting this charming yet bland interlude.

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