The Dig (2021)
★★★ / ★★★★
Beautifully photographed and offering a handful images that inspire a sense of wonder, particularly when the camera gets real close to artifacts that have been buried for several hundred years, Simon Stone’s “The Dig” invites viewers to 1939 and takes on heavy subjects like mortality, time, and decay. But it is not a depressing experience. Certainly there are sad and stirring moments, but the overall effect is the opposite: it is life-affirming because the work inspires us to want to know not only about the discoveries made in Ipswich, the people involved, their personal lives, what the work meant to them, and if they received the proper credit they deserved, but also findings yet to be unearthed during our lifetimes. In the middle of this gentle but celebratory film, I was inspired to open up the nearest science book, to read through my massive backlog of research papers, and to peruse through current publications of The Scientist magazine.
The story opens when widow Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) hires excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to dig up mounds in her land for two pounds a week. She claims that she has a feeling that something valuable is hidden under there, specifically a spot that is more oval-shaped compared to the rest. I will not reveal what Brown and his team will find for those who are not familiar with the excavation of Sutton Hoo. Credit to the director for elegantly putting the pieces into place, from the hiring of the humble Mr. Brown until the dig site is once again covered in dirt.
When this work is at its most powerful, particularly intimate scenes between Mulligan and Fiennes, how their characters’ professional partnership evolves, I felt I was experiencing the spirit of John Preston’s novel of the same name. It is curious, too, that the more Brown uncovers what appears to be the find of the century in pre-WWII England, Pretty’s health goes on a steep decline.
Mulligan’s talent for communicating plenty using only silence shines here. Pretty is ecstatic that her suspicions regarding her chosen mound is very special indeed, but unlike the body that can be laid to sleep, her mind is never at rest or fully satisfied because it is overtaken by fear of death—fear of leaving her young son Robert (Archie Barnes) to be orphaned. The tragic irony is sensitively but astutely handled; it is a reminder that since we are all slaves to time, our bodies decaying by the second, our final destination is the ground. Life is cyclical in nature and it cannot be stopped. Current lives are destined to become past lives to be discovered by the future.
Although the film is a transportive look into the past, it is propelled by a constant forward momentum. Before long, the crew of three has expanded and we are introduced to a slew outsiders from posh institutions. Renowned archeologist Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) arrives expecting everyone to recognize his authority. Again, time is at the forefront: the more compacted soil is unearthed; England and Germany are one step closer to waging war. Planes soar above the excavation site once in a while serving as reminder that there are bigger events at play—just as Pretty is consistently reminded of her illness. Soon she requires a cane to get around. Her mind remains active, but her body is beginning to fail. Her intellectually curious son observes and compartmentalizes.
A romantic angle is introduced between Pretty’s cousin Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn) and the married Peggy Piggott (Lily James). While it is an appropriate decision because their (expected) connection ties into themes of mortality, time, and decay while providing a feeling of hope through their youth and inexperience, I found this to be far less compelling when compared directly to Pretty and Brown’s passion for knowledge and discovery. I felt as though the romance is a device readily employed just in case the heart of the story isn’t so apparent to most viewers.