I’ll be the first to admit that I had no idea where Sutton Hoo was or that it was the site of one of the great archeological finds of the 20th century. But watching The Dig certainly placed it in my lexicon. Cary Mulligan stars in this “based on a true story” period drama. She’s Edith Pretty, a young widow with a young son who lives on an estate near a village called Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, England. It’s 1939 and Britain is just being drawn into the war when she hires Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes, Harry Potter, The Grand Budapest Hotel) to excavate some ancient burial mounds on her property. He’s a local man, self-taught, but very knowledgable about archeology. He thinks the mounds could be Anglo-Saxon, but the local museum experts laugh at the idea. They don’t laugh for long.
Pretty begins her relationship with Brown trying to get him to work for cheap, the same amount the local museum paid him, day laborer wages. But he bargains his way up, and their always platonic relationship grows from there. He begins his excavation on one of the smaller mounds, but moves to the larger one once he gets a sense of the place and has a feeling about what might be there. With the help of some of Pretty’s employees and her soon-to-be-an-RAF-pilot cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn, EMMA.), the dig begins in earnest. And what Brown uncovers is — an enormous buried Anglo-Saxon ship! But once the news trickles out, the experts and professionals from the British Museum swoop in and push him aside. It’s a very class conscious move. But with Pretty’s help he becomes a part of the dig again.
There’s a young woman archeologist with the museum team, Peggy Piggott (Lily James, Baby Driver, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) who is told she was included because she was small and wouldn’t crush anything under her weight. But as she digs away in her spot, she uncovers a cache of gold treasures that astounds everyone. She’s going through a breakup with her husband, another archeologist who isn’t that interested in her anyway, so she takes up with Pretty’s cousin. But that storyline is really just a distraction.
While the dig is front and center, Pretty is contending with health problems that could leave her son an orphan. But Brown’s kindness to him, bringing his telescope to explore the cosmos with the boy, lightens everything. While everyone in the film is good, Fiennes carries the show. He’s shy and reserved, but has a natural intelligence that threatens his betters. He also has a beautiful goodness that you see with the boy and with his wife who lives in town and believes in him as no one else has. It’s a quiet film, with the foreboding of war just in the background, and a perfect Netflix streamer when you need a bit of inspiration with a side of education.
All of the main characters were real people. The only fictional addition is Cousin Rory. The film is an adaptation of a fictional telling by John Preston, the nephew of Margaret Guido (aka Peggy Piggott). The treasures are now in the British Museum. I probably saw them on one of my visits.