“Very flat, Norfolk,” observes a character in Noel Coward’s Private Lives. Such slurs dog the history of England’s flattest county, and the traditional doormat for invaders from across the North Sea. That anything of significance lay under its largely featureless terrain defied probability, which may be why The Dig,inspired by archeological discoveries made there in 1939, became a film.
In 1939, a widow with the Wodehousian name of Edith Pretty, living in the no less picturesquely named Sutton Hoo, hired self-taught local “excavator” Basil Brown to investigate some ancient burial mounds on her land. Most had been looted in medieval times, but Brown unearthed a sixth century Anglo Saxon ship and a cache of grave goods that overturned traditional concepts of post-Roman Britain.
The British cinema never took archaeology seriously. While Hollywood prepared the ground for Indiana Jones and Lara Croft with serials about buccaneering adventurers and lost cities, Britain offered variations on The Mummy, and Margaret Rutherford’s eccentric medievalist in the 1949 Passport to Pimlico who, by revealing that a London suburb still belongs to Burgundy, allows its citizens to secede gleefully from post-war privation.
One can imagine Ealing in its heyday turning the events behind The Dig into a comedy along the lines of Tawny Pipit, possibly with that film’s Bernard Miles as a pipe-sucking Brown dispensing peasant wisdom and forming a companionable relationship with a middle-aged Edith (Celia Johnson?)
Fortunately, Australian director Simon Stone, making only his second feature, angles the story towards drama, emphasizing the tensions of the time, social, political and sexual. The northern European summer of 1939 was idyllic, but The Dig begins that autumn, with dark skies that foreshadow the war looming just across the North Sea. As Spitfires roar overhead, Brown, no fan of the present, glances up resentfully, then shoves his spade back into the cloying soil.
Edith Pretty was 56 when she met Brown, but Carey Mulligan plays her as a younger woman who has lost her youth and health caring for an ailing father. She’s left with a pre-teen son and a desire to do something more with her land than be buried on it. Her romantic view of the mounds isn’t shared by Brown. To him, this is just “an excavating job” for which, with the truculence of the exploited, he demands the correct wages. Determined to be neither patronised nor under-valued, he’s prepared to forget the whole thing unless it’s done his way. Even when Edith accepts his terms, he continues to wash at the tap in the yard, sleep over the garage and eat in the kitchen with the cook. More important than any other knowledge in those days was that of knowing one’s place.
Fiennes shows little of Brown’s scholarly side, which was impressive. He taught himself a number of languages and wrote a book on celestial mechanics. But modern audiences are no more impressed with learning than they were in 1939. The only man to show his education in Raiders of the Lost Ark was Belloq. He consistently outsmarted Indy and was even well on the way to seducing Marion, but people preferred the man with the whip and the Stetson.
The self-effacing Brown is under no illusions about how his part on the project will be remembered. “Mark my words, May,” he tells his wife. “I won't receive any credit. I won't even be a footnote.” Which was indeed the case. When Edith presented his finds to the British Museum, his name wasn’t mentioned.
Moira Buffini’s script from John Preston’s novel commits the common error of introducing a sub-plot, in the hope that impatient viewers won’t be put off by the brainy bits. In this case it’s a confected affair between an archaeologist’s frustrated wife (Lily James) and a young photographer (Johnny Flynn) about to join the RAF. It distracts attention from more complex themes, among them the growing bond between Brown and Edith’s son, and the pressure it places on his own childless marriage. It might have derailed the film completely had not the drama of unearthing the treasure taken centre stage, with Brown going head to head with the archaeological establishment, and in particular Ken Stott as Charles Phillips, the big name who tries to highjack the dig.
Having lived in rural England – and, indeed, in East Anglia – makes it difficult to appreciate The Dig on its merits. One can’t help thinking of The Wind in the Willows, with Phillips a blustering Toad to Brown’s stolid Badger, while Fiennes’ take on the Norfolk drawl brings to mind Ralph Whiteman, a regular on BBC radio’s long-running Gardeners’ Question Time. At least once on every show, he would muse in an accent rich and dark as compost “The answer lies in the soil.”
It’s not clear in the film that soil was, in fact, about all that remained at Sutton Hoo. The ship’s timbers had long since disappeared. What Brown unearthed was a mould of compressed earth showing where they had been. As for the treasures, the gold pieces and precious stones survived, but anything else decomposed into rusty fragments. That these could be reassembled into something as impressive as the helmet now on display in the British Museum (pictured below) reminds one all over again of the achievement in which Basil Brown played such a crucial role.
The Dig is streamed on Netflix. In this Youtube film the BM’s curator Sue Brunning shows how the Sutton Hoo helmet was reconstructed.