Photo: ‘The Dig’/Netflix
‘The Dig’–The Excavation of Sutton Hoo
In history’s worst moments, when men are called to war to kill each other and so much subtlety is lost, it takes a special kind of hero to preserve beautiful things. In ‘The Dig’, an alluring, passionate dramatization of the discovery and excavation of England’s Sutton Hoo Burial, that hero is Basil Brown. Brown, as played by Ralph Fiennes, is a gentle, principled man, considered inferior by his colleagues due to his lack of formal education. And yet, when the ailing widow Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) decides to excavate the burial mounds on her property, Brown is the only man the local museum can spare–everyone else is occupied with preparing the country for the possibility of war with Germany. That is, until it becomes clear that what they are unearthing may be the most significant archaeological discovery in British history.
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As the dig site becomes more interesting, the cast expands, as does the potential for conflict. Leading the charge is the renowned archaeologist Charles Phillips (Ken Stott), who turns his nose up at Brown’s provincial experience. Phillips brings an entourage along with him that includes John Brailsford (Eamon Farren), Stuart Piggott (Ben Chaplin), and Stuart’s wife Peggy (Lily James), who is condescendingly included not due to her skill but due to the fact that her small stature makes it unlikely that she will damage anything with her weight. Ms. Pretty also recruits her cousin Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn), a dashing aspiring RAF pilot who agrees to help out until he’s called to serve.
For Fans of ‘The Crown’ and ‘Downton Abbey’
Fans of British period dramas like ‘The Crown’ and ‘Downton Abbey’ will see the class conflicts and romantic developments coming, and they will likely be soothed by the story’s gentle rhythms. This is a far cry from the ‘Indiana Jones’ version of cinematic archaeology, but it also isn’t a granular depiction of archaeological science. The film does take pains to show the pressures and pitfalls of excavation in the early 20th century. These include wall collapses, floodings, and the accidental damaging of artifacts.
Of course, most of the film’s drama comes not from the vulnerability of artifacts but from the vulnerability of humans. Ms. Pretty struggles with her health, finding herself facing her own mortality. A scene in which she receives her grim prognosis in an office suspended over an alleyway is captivating in its elegant symbolism. As Ms. Pretty becomes lost in pity for herself and her young son Robert (Archie Barnes), she begins to lose control of the site to the ambitious Charles Philips, who snobbishly wishes to wrest control of the site from Brown. It is up to the steady-handed Brown to bring her back to reality.
Slowly Uncovered Truths
The film also shares aspects with recent period pieces like ‘God’s Own Country’ and ‘Ammonite’, creating a moody forbidden same-sex romance between Stuart Piggott and Brailsford. To the film’s credit, it avoids the unfortunate trope of subjecting its queer characters to abject misery. However, it also doesn’t delve deeply into their relationship, focusing more instead on a potential affair developing between Peggy Piggott and Lomax. With its slowly developing love stories unfolding in nostalgically presented World War II England, ‘The Dig’ occasionally feels like a throwback to the lowkey period pieces Miramax presented in the late 90s. They even include the anachronistically skimpy outfits for Lily James.
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That isn’t meant as a slight. This sort of period piece is legitimately pleasant and meditative in a way that more overtly social justice-minded fare (like the recently released ‘Radium Girls’) is not. ‘The Dig’ is a story of slowly uncovered truths, and some things that are never to be brought to light. It features multiple sedate relationships. There is the marriage of convenience between Stuart and Peggy Piggott, but there is also a friendly but decidedly impassionate partnership between Brown and his wife May (Monica Dolan). May drops into the story to provide Brown with freshly-ironed shirts, and she even seems to give her husband tacit approval to pursue Ms. Pretty, should he choose to. The relationship between Brown and Pretty tends to maintain the same temperature as the cool clay that obscures the hidden chambers of the Sutton Hoo, the same sort of clay that covers the burial plot of Pretty’s late husband.
The End of an Era
The film’s cinematographer Mike Eley (who shot 2017’s moody Rachel Weisz-starring ‘My Cousin Rachel’) gets a lot of mileage out of the burial mounds and tall-grassed fields, capturing images that are reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s ‘Days of Heaven’ and ‘A Hidden Life’. Meanwhile, production designer Maria Djurkovic (who designed ‘The Imitation Game’) and costume designer Alice Babidge (‘True History of the Kelly Gang’) find an impressive number of shades of brown, providing both texture and thematic resonance. The film’s willingness to get dirty gives it a tactile immediacy that eludes some period pieces too concerned with maintaining a Hollywood sheen.
‘The Dig’ is largely preoccupied with things that are poignantly ephemeral. Fans of ‘Downton Abbey’ will remember that the series chronicles the decaying way of life of the British aristocracy. The recent ‘Downton Abbey’ film took place in 1927, and by that time the series’ Crawley family had already significantly pared down its retinue of servants. This film takes place in 1939, and Ms. Pretty’s estate staffs only one butler and some assorted fieldhands. After the war, this world will essentially cease to exist. Many young men will not return. Modernity will assert itself. Advances in travel and communication will make the world seem smaller.
“To fix things as they go past.”
While men of Brown’s generation tend to the past, staunchly smoking their pipes and digging into the dirt, Lomax and Archie look to the sky and even the stars. While the ancientness of the Anglo-Saxon artifacts brings daunting thoughts of the brevity of human life to mind, it is nothing compared to the scale of outer space contemplated by the Buck Rogers-loving Archie. Juxtaposed with the seemingly infinite universe, Lomax turns to photography as a way to seize individual moments, as a way “to fix things as they go past”. Peggy must decide whether to seize the moment with Lomax, while Edith must seize every moment she has remaining with Archie. This is the human experience, to exist in the liminal space between eternity and the present moment. As Brown says, “from the first human handprint on a cave wall, we’re part of something continuous. So we don’t really die.”
‘The Dig’ is currently playing in select theaters. It comes to Netflix on January 29.
Director: Simon Stone
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