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Is new Netflix movie ‘The Dig’ a pro-Brexit, white supremacist rallying cry – or just a tale of a famous archeological discovery?

Michael McCaffrey
Michael McCaffrey

Michael McCaffrey is a writer and cultural critic who lives in Los Angeles. His work can be read at RT, Counterpunch and at his website mpmacting.com/blog. He is also the host of the popular cinema podcast Looking California and Feeling Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter @MPMActingCo

Michael McCaffrey is a writer and cultural critic who lives in Los Angeles. His work can be read at RT, Counterpunch and at his website mpmacting.com/blog. He is also the host of the popular cinema podcast Looking California and Feeling Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter @MPMActingCo

Is new Netflix movie ‘The Dig’ a pro-Brexit, white supremacist rallying cry – or just a tale of a famous archeological discovery?
Only a woke academic could find hidden racial villainy and ‘historical tropes of imperial power’ in this perfectly benign and mildly pleasant British film.

The Dig’ is a Netflix film starring Ralph Fiennes, Carey Mulligan and Lily James that dramatizes the 1939 excavation of an Anglo-Saxon burial site at Sutton Hoo that transformed our understanding of the history of early medieval England. 

The film, directed by Simon Stone and written by Moira Buffini, has been nominated for five BAFTAs, including for Outstanding British Film. 

But not everyone is so enamored with the movie, as some see it as a pro-Brexit film espousing white supremacy. 

Louise D’Arcens, a professor of English at Macquarie University in Australia, recently attacked the film because it commits the cultural sin of “nostalgically appealing” and “romanticizing” an “imagined continuity between Anglo-Saxons and modern British people that does not speak to the complexity of Britain today.” The horror!

D’Arcens complains the film “re-animates key tropes from the persistent British and American ideology of Anglo-Saxonism,” which she claims “was vital to underwriting white racial supremacy as a mandate for Britain’s imperial power and the expansionist concept of Manifest Destiny…”

When viewed through this distorted lens, ‘The Dig’ transforms from a tame historical drama/love story into a nefarious Brexit propaganda film surreptitiously waving an ‘England for the English!’ banner.

I didn’t see any white supremacy or Brexit sub-text in ‘The Dig’, but rather an utterly banal, benign and innocuous movie examining the universality of life, death and the impermanence of things. 

The film is one of those proficiently shot, well-acted British dramas with which we’ve become so accustomed. It isn’t great and it isn’t awful. It’s fine. It’s a middlebrow piece of entertainment geared toward Anglophiles who’ve already devoured ‘Downton Abbey’ and are looking to satiate their taste for all things British. 

Not surprisingly, there are numerous contradictions and illogical observations in D’Arcens’ misguided analysis. 

For instance, a major narrative in the film is about class struggle. Protagonist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) is a self-taught, working-class excavator from Suffolk, who is hired by wealthy landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan). Their budding relationship must navigate the suffocating class structures of the time period. 

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The class narrative is also highlighted when Charles Phillips (Ken Stott), a pompous archeologist from the British Museum, invades Sutton Hoo, belittles Basil and ultimately takes credit for his tremendous discovery. 

Yet D’Arcens interprets the Phillips-Basil clash as not being about class but rather “highlighting ongoing tensions between Britain’s rural counties and its metropolitan center” with rural meaning pro-Brexit/bad and metropolitan anti-Brexit/good. 

This assessment seems oddly regressive as it lionizes the elite (Phillips) and vilifies the working class (Basil).

D’Arcens also bemoans the film “drawing uncritically on historical tropes of expansionism – despite the fact the violence of colonialism and occupation is well understood today.”

This is directly at odds with the disparaging appraisal of Basil as a bad guy avatar for Brexiteers. Basil is the victim of the colonialism of the educated metropolitan Philips. Like countless British colonialists before him, Phillips comes to Basil’s “foreign” land of Suffolk, takes power, steals treasures and brings them back to London. Yet, incongruously in D’Arcens’ warped deconstruction, Phillips is also a heroic symbol of anti-Brexit sophistication.

D’Arcens then writes:

One of the great reckonings in the film comes when Basil’s wife, May, urges her disaffected husband to return to the dig. She tells him:

‘You’ve always said your work isn’t about the past or even the present. It’s for the future, so that the next generations can know where they came from. The line that joins them to their forebears.’

“This appeal to the idea of genetic continuity is rousing and profound, but also exclusionary and insular. May assumes racial and cultural uniformity in Britain, and shared forebears for all.”

Good lord, this is in no way an appeal to “genetic continuity” or an assumption of “racial uniformity.”

A major storyline in the film is that WWII is about to begin and the survival of Britain is at stake. This isn’t about genetic continuity or racial uniformity, because the ethnogenesis of Anglo-Saxons developed between migrant Germanic tribes that came to the island back in the 5th century and indigenous Britons, thus Germans conquering Britain is not a genetic or racial threat. Hell, the royal family has German bloodlines.

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The existential crisis facing Britain in the film is not a racial or genetic one, it is a national one as it is their (multiracial) nationality that will disappear if the Germans prevail, not their race or genetic line.

D’Arcens continues, “[May] speaks to the film’s 21st century viewers, many of whom would not see an unearthed Saxon as a forebear, and might rightly wonder what ‘future generations’ the film has in mind for Britain.”

If multicultural 21st century Brits, regardless of their race or ethnicity, don’t acknowledge a centuries-dead Saxon king as a forebear for their nation, that says more about their historical ignorance and ethnic arrogance than anything else.

D’Arcens closes by lamenting, “…as cinematic archeology, [‘The Dig’] looks far more to the past than to the future.”

Considering ‘The Dig’ is a movie set in the past and tells the story of characters discovering an even older past, this is an incredibly inane climax to a wholly inadequate analysis. 

In conclusion, ‘The Dig’ is not a great movie, but it also isn’t a dangerous one. It’s a mildly pleasant film that will most definitely not turn you into a brutish Brexiteer or Anglo-Saxon supremacist… I promise. 

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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