Netflix’s The Dig Seductively Uncovers Real Dirt & Forgotten Secrets

Photo: Courtesy of netflix.
As the credits rolled on The Dig, Simon Stone’s new historical drama now streaming on Netflix, I found myself thinking about Harlots. You may ask, what does a (very underrated) show about 18th century sex workers clawing their way up the social ladder have in common with a sweeping archeological tale starring Ralph Fiennes? The obvious answer is Moira Buffini, creator of the first and screenwriter for the second. But through her pen, both Harlots and The Dig also share a careful consideration for those too often left out of grand historical retellings, and a desire to help them reclaim their place in the accepted narrative. 
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“Even though the two worlds are very different and the tone of each is very different, what they've got in common is that they're both stories about underdogs,” Buffini told Refinery29 during a phone interview ahead of the movie’s January 29 release. 
Adapted from John Preston’s 2007 novel, The Dig tells the true story of Basil Brown (Fiennes), a self-taught excavator working for a regional museum who gets a last-minute job when he’s summoned to the country estate of Mrs. Edith Pretty (Promising Young Woman’s Carey Mulligan, who couldn’t look and sound more different). With World War II looming on the near-horizon, the widowed mother of one wants to find out if there’s anything significant hidden underneath some unusual mounds of earth on her property, known as Sutton Hoo. As it turns out, her land is the site of a nearly intact Anglo-Saxon royal burial ship, a groundbreaking discovery that attracts the attention of the toffs at the British Museum. Their arrival threatens Brown’s authority on the site, and indeed his very legacy, which like the Sutton Hoo treasure he discovered, lay dormant for years. In the final moments of the movie, epilogue text tells us that when the artifacts found at the site were finally displayed to the public after the end of the war, Brown’s name wasn’t even mentioned as a footnote.
I wouldn’t fault you for assuming this is the kind of movie you’d watch with your dad over Christmas break. Fiennes doing his very best working class shtick, a determined yet dreamy Mulligan in khaki culottes, archeology hijinks, class conflict, and the looming shadow of World War II — had The Dig been released in the ‘90s, it would have swept the Academy Awards. 
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But the way Buffini’s script is framed makes this film feel more modern than its period setting. In her hands, The Dig gets a full cast of supporting characters who feel just as central to the story as Basil himself. During a research trip to Sutton Hoo, Buffini came across May Brown’s letters to her husband, which inspired her to add her as a more prominent presence in the film. Played by Monica Dolan, May gets brief but powerful screen time, making her a memorable and valuable presence rather than an adoring supportive wife figure. 
“She was a real person, and you can't write her out,” Buffini said. “ I always find it very important, like in Harlots as well, even with smaller characters, they've got to be three-dimensional, real people. And May was great. She wrote for the local paper. She did all sorts of different jobs. I think Basil was probably quite a difficult husband in many ways, because he was such an obsessive and he had no money.”
Basil’s relationship with Edith, which could easily have veered into a boring romance, is complex, exploring the ways in which he as a working-class man, and she as a woman of means, have both been stifled by a system that doesn’t value them. 
And then there’s Peggy Piggot (Lily James), a young archeologist who arrives at Sutton Hoo with her husband Stuart (Ben Chaplin) believing that she was summoned for her expertise, only to realize that she’s just there because as a petite woman, she can roam the site without damaging it. The film tracks her professional journey as she starts to come into her own, and her emotional one as she catches the eye of Edith’s dashing cousin, Rory Lomax (Emma heartthrob Johnny Flynn). His attentions only highlight Stuart’s physical distance from his wife, and the way he really only blossoms in the presence of his male colleagues. 
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“Peggy is another outsider, another kind of underdog who isn't taken seriously by any of the men, and is struggling to find herself and to find meaning in a work and in a marriage,” Buffini said. “She was a very highly regarded archeologist. Her husband is a real person too, but their marriage was annulled after the war for lack of consummation. One can surmise that Stuart was probably gay, but couldn’t say that because it was illegal in his time.”
Buffini doesn’t get bogged down trying to impose 21st century attitudes about sex, gender, or class onto the time period she’s portraying. Instead, she teases out the stories that were left out of the history books, those that were there all along, just waiting to be dug up.  
Still, the future is as important a presence in The Dig as the distant past.
“I hope people take away the sense that all things pass,” Buffini said. “The Second World War was devastating. But one generation from then, we were putting men on the moon. The wheels of time have changed the world, and some things are worse, but a whole lot of things are much better. Both the United Kingdom and the United States are going through awful traumas at the moment. But you have to be hopeful. Ultimately, truth and love are the primary motivating forces in human behavior over death and destruction.”
Don’t believe her? Just ask Basil Brown. “At the time he couldn’t afford a flushing toilet,” Buffini jokes. “Now, he's a star of British archeology.”

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