Death is only the end if you assume the story is about you.
The Dig comes to us from screenwriter Moira Buffini, who previously gave us the Jane Eyre adaptation of 2011 (YAY!) and Tamara Drewe of 2010 (BOO!). The director this time is Simon Stone, here making his sophomore effort after The Daughter in 2015. Never heard of that one, but it looks interesting.
Based on John Preston’s work of historical fiction, the film dramatizes the excavation of Sutton Hoo in 1939. The basic gist is that Edith Pretty (here played by Carey Mulligan) is a wealthy widow with a lifelong passion for archaeology. As such, she’s got a peculiar instinct about a series of small hills on her grounds, and suspects that there might be something of interest underneath them.
Enter Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), a self-taught excavator with an impressive work history in archaeological digs. Pretty commissions Brown to dig up the hills, even though World War II is brewing and he’s more badly needed at other sites in greater danger of getting blown up.
Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Edith’s young son (Robert Pretty, played by Archie Barnes), a boy who forms an immediate rapport with Brown.
I’ll be perfectly honest, the first act is a drag. I found it to be boring, self-important, period drama tedium with absolutely no reason why I should care about anything happening onscreen. But then… well, this happened.
I still don’t know exactly how else to describe what happened or when it happened. Maybe it was around the time when the British Museum (here personified by Ken Stott in the role of Charles Phillips) takes over the dig and unearths golden Dark Age-era artifacts. Maybe it’s the time when Pretty’s health takes a turn for the worse and she starts dying of irreparable heart damage. Maybe it’s when the Nazis invade Poland.
(Side note: The real Edith Pretty died of a stroke three years after the events of the film. I might add that Pretty was older than Mulligan by a good twenty years.)
All I know is that at some point, all these different subplots started to congeal all at once. When the dominoes finally started falling, they fell hard and fast. So much happens so quickly that I’m not really sure where to begin.
First of all, the film is set at a rural estate near an RAF base. War planes soaring overhead are a constant interruption, so we’re never allowed to forget that WWII is on the horizon. There’s also the matter of Pretty’s cousin (Rory Lomax, a purely fictional character, played by Johnny Flynn), who’s set to join the RAF, keeping the war close to home.
Perhaps more importantly, London is currently in the process of evacuation and preparation for war. So yes, while London is the natural choice to store and protect such valuable historical artifacts, the city is being emptied of all its treasures in anticipation of German ordnance.
It’s an open question as to who claims ownership of the buried property, and who gets the credit for the discovery and unearthing. Yes, the property was unearthed on Pretty’s land, but this is far too big for her to keep for herself. And sure, Brown was technically the first one to unearth and discover the site, but there are a great many other, more prestigious and well-connected archaeologists who want their cut of the wealth and fame. Though to be entirely fair, the site is much bigger than any one excavator could possibly handle, and the British Museum does the lion’s share of the remaining work when they finally show up.
But then, does it ultimately matter who gets the credit? In the long run, maybe all that really matters is the history, the knowledge we gain from such a discovery. And that belongs to all of humanity, really.
On a related note, this movie earns major kudos for making geology and archaeology exciting. From the camerawork to the editing to the multitude of developing themes, this film makes a compelling case for why archaeology is important and fascinating work. And there’s no Indiana Jones bullshit here, just hard work and a hunger for knowledge.
Moving on, there’s also the matter of Stuart and Cecily Margaret “Peggy” Piggott, respectively played by Ben Chaplin and Lily James. The Piggotts are a husband/wife team of archaeologists who come on board with the British Museum. Trouble is, it’s immediately obvious that theirs is a loveless marriage, and it’s the only thin shield between Peggy and an avalanche of workplace sexism. Luckily, Peggy finds a confidante in Edith Pretty, and a potential love interest in Pretty’s cousin.
(Side note: Peggy and Stuart Piggott divorced in 1956, nearly two decades after the events of the film. It’s also implied that Stuart Piggott may have been homosexual — I can’t find any nonfictional evidence to back that up.)
To recap, what we’ve got here is
- An aging yet accomplished excavator with barely any formal education or connections
- A dying widow
- The widow’s son, who has to face potentially losing his mother so soon after losing his father.
- A professional and educated woman, stuck in a bad marriage and a sexist work environment
- A massive ship that’s been buried since the Dark Ages
- A looming World War
Put it all together and what do we get? Mortality and history.
All of the characters — most especially Pretty and Peggy — have to face the fact that life is short and fleeting. Seize the day, make every second count, and so on. This would of course be tired and cliched tripe, but it’s made so much more powerful by the looming presence of death all through the picture.
The filmmakers never let us forget that this burial site is somebody’s grave. Our characters are disturbing unknown persons who’ve been dead for over a thousand years. Yet it’s also an uplifting reminder that even though death comes for all of us, that’s not necessarily the end. Every single one of us leaves behind footprints and artifacts to show that we were here.
So really, this excavation isn’t about discovering the dead — it’s about discovering their lives. It’s about learning who these people were and how they lived. It’s about bringing the past and present closer together, for the enlightenment of the future. Looking at it this way, all of history is a continuous and collaborative process with all peoples of the past, present, and future all working together.
There’s a lot of great material here, all presented with heart and intelligence in equal measure. It certainly helps that we’ve got awards-caliber performances from Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan, and Lily James is no slouch either. Ken Stott is easily the unsung hero of the supporting cast, seamlessly and effortlessly switching from heel to face and back again on a dime. But then we’ve got the nitpicks.
Robert Pretty is energetic and attention-hungry as you’d expect from any nine-year-old boy. It would be so easy for this character to be overly annoying comic relief, but the character’s pathos keeps him right on that razor’s edge. Of course, it certainly helps that Archie Barnes has such an immensely capable scene partner as Ralph Fiennes — Brown takes the brunt of Robert’s energy so the audience doesn’t have to, and the interplay is quite endearing for both characters.
The bigger problem here is with the love triangles. There are some uncomfortable moments in the first act, in which the filmmakers seem to explore the possibility of a romantic interest between Brown and Pretty. Mercifully, everyone involved decides to pull back and the relationship between both characters is kept strictly professional. That said, Brown’s relationship with his wife (May Brown, played by Monica Dolan) wasn’t quite as strong as it really should’ve been. Fiennes and Dolan are trying so hard, but the chemistry isn’t quite there.
Likewise, there’s the matter of Rory’s triad with the Piggotts. This love triangle is a lot more straightforward, as Peggy is tempted away from her inert husband and toward the handsome young fighter pilot. Yes, Lily James and Ben Chaplin perfectly sell a married couple who respect each other as they desperately search for a love that isn’t there. The problem is that the Lily James/Johnny Flynn chemistry had to be fiery red hot for this to work, and it just isn’t there.
But probably the biggest nitpick is an editing quirk. For whatever reason, Simon Stone apparently loves sequences in which the characters are talking with each other in voice over, as we watch the same characters stare wordlessly into the middle distance. We’re listening to the characters talking as we’re watching them do something else. Sure, it conveys the right kind of mood, but the filmmakers leaned too heavily on the device for my taste.
The Dig takes a while to get going, but the film turns into something genuinely special when it picks up speed. At its best, the film is intelligent and heartfelt, uplifting and empowering. It’s a compelling and multilayered examination of life, death, and our place in history, all done in a way that glorifies geology and archaeology like I didn’t think was possible in commercial mainstream cinema. And even when the film is at its worst (as with the romance attempts), at least we still get to see talented actors putting so much effort onto the screen.
This one absolutely gets a recommendation. Check it out.