MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS
The Dig by Simon Stone – available on Netflix – works on so many levels that there is surely something in it to appeal to everyone. On the surface it is, of course, the story of the spectacular, spine-tingling discoveries made at Sutton Hoo in 1939. The jaw-dropping thrill of the discovery of a buried Anglo-Saxon ship, filled with treasures, both financially and culturally priceless, is documented with the sense of wonder and majesty it fully deserves. If it does nothing else, the film proves that a film about archaeologists can be engaging and gripping without whips, fedoras, Nazis or hideous racial stereotypes. But it does so, so much more than that.
That’s Why We Dig
The tale of the hiring of Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes with a wicked Suffolk accent) by Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) to excavate burial mounds on her land at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk in the year before the start of World War II, The Dig is a glorious, poignant and moving meditation on life, death, time and impermanence. Shot with luminous cinematography that seems to leave Sutton Hoo almost permanently at sundown, it is more about the characters and how the discovery affects them mentally and emotionally than about the titular dig itself. Death hangs heavy in the air, but never in a way that is dark or oppressive. There is a pathos, to be sure, particularly for Edith Pretty, as she knows her time is fading away. As Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn) muses at one point, if a thousand years were to pass in a second, what would be left of each of us? The find at Sutton Hoo answers that. The body and who we are may be gone, but the memory of the life we led is there for the finding, if only somebody is around to find it.
The cast of characters allows for this meditation, the broad range of ages, personalities and experiences of life all reflecting the different ways the discovery of the distant past can inform and influence perspectives. The young, their lives seemingly stretching out before them, full of possibilities that they may or may not grasp, are reminded of how fleeting those lives are to be. The older characters, closer to the end of their brief experiences on Earth, ponder what shall remain, either with melancholy or acceptance. The constant presence of the approach of war is not merely background, it is a reminder of that impermanence, a call for these people to grab what they can in a time when it is impossible to know what the next day, week or month may bring.
Players on a Stage
The film’s ability to dwell on this theme without becoming maudlin is down to its excellent, considered and subtle script and consistently great performances from an excellent cast. Mulligan and Fiennes are absolutely perfect in their roles, becoming rather than just inhabiting them. Fiennes finds great depth in Basil Brown, with warmth and a philosophical mind beneath an occasionally curmudgeonly exterior. Yet it is not just these much-praised two who make the film. Peggy Piggott (Lily James in a pair of specs the size of her face) is sparky but frustrated, yearning for life, love and the thrill of discovery that she is not getting – or going to get – from her husband (Ben Chaplin, clearly more interested here in waxing someone else’s board, rather than his own). She wants respect and freedom, rather than some cringe-inducingly patronising verbal pats on the head (she finds a piece of treasure in the ship…“Oh, darling, aren’t you clever!”)
In the end, there is a sense of uplift, if only in the promise of the future, in spite of its many perils and obstacles. Not everyone is going to realise that promise, for a variety of reasons, but it remains. And where it remains, there is hope.
And finally, there is just the archaeology itself. If this film inspires anybody to look into the field, it will have achieved something valuable. Hell, I was ready to buy some tweeds, grab a trowel and then get out there. Until I realised that I was still in Lockdown v.3 and that even the people making the tea on digs have doctorates these days.
In the final analysis, a stunning film that is so much more than it first appears.