A lot has happened over the last nine months but if there is one unifying invisible weight that rests on all our shoulders it is that death comes for us all whether we are ready or not. Our mortality is constantly being pricked as we struggle through these uncertain and tumultuous times. I can’t help but think of the W.C. Field’s quote, “The world is getting to be such a dangerous place, a man is lucky if he gets out of it alive.”
Death hangs over Simon Stone’s The Dig like a shroud. But Stone’s film isn’t dour or even morose. It is matter of fact and strangely calm about it. It is a film one would expect from an older director but seeing as the world is how it is, it should not be such a shock that Stone is a mere 36.
The Dig is based on a true story. Moira Buffini adapted the book of the same name, unread by men, by John Preston for the screen. It is a very English film. Characters grunt and nod and keep a stiff upper lip even as the world begins its inexorable march toward another world war.
When I say stereotypically British I mean there’s a scene in which one character says to another, “Wow how exciting!” To which the other character doesn’t even shrug and replies with, “Yeah, it’s alright.”
As stories go, Buffini’s script is relatively simple but therein lies its beauty. Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), an amateur archeologist is hired by Edity Pretty (Carey Mulligan) to excavate some large mounds on her rural estate. The mounds are somewhat infamous locally around Sutton Hoo but no one has ever really dug them up.
World War II is on the horizon, the year, after all, is 1939, and every other archeologist is working on unearthing a Roman villa before the war starts. Basil isn’t well-liked by the others, he’s educated and experienced, but not from the university. His father was an archaeologist and he grew up digging alongside him. He’s every bit as knowledgeable and experienced but he’s rough and doesn’t do with people who wield education like a cudgel.
Perhaps it’s why he and Edith get along so well. A widowed mother, Edith suffers from heart trouble but exhibits a stubborn streak that Basil can’t help but admire. The two get along almost instantly even with the rocky start. Edith hires Basil at a low wage she thinks is fair, as that’s what the other excavation is paying. “Yes, but he don’t pay enough.”
Edith wants Basil to start on the biggest mound. He disagrees but asks her why. She tells him it’s because she has a feeling. “That speaks, don’t it? The Past.”
Stone uses the excavation as a way to explore the tenuousness of our own mortality. Edith and Basil have many discussions about the proper way to treat the dead and making sure they get their respect. Every day Basil digs more and more and sometimes Edith comes out and watches.
In a way, he looks at life itself and how it stretches out before us and long after us. Our time upon this earth is so fleetingly; it’s a miracle we leave knowing anything at all. The Dig looks at death not through the lens of the inevitable but as something that is part of our very DNA. “No, that’s life what we revealed…that’s why we dig.”
The Dig is a languid film, fitting for how it mediates on its theme. Stone and his cinematographer Mike Ely frame the shots with just a hint of naturalism. The shots are never distracting which doesn’t mean there are not wonderfully composed scenes or that the film lacks style.
Edith goes to visit Basil at the burial grounds and see that he’s dug a walkway of a sort to the middle. She walks down the path, Basil standing at the head of it, the camera placing her in the foreground and Basil in the back. Later, that shot will be reversed when the mound collapses onto Basil, showing us just how fickle the very Earth is.
Basil survives and is soon joined by other museum officials who wish to take over. What was once thought to be a mere Viking burial ground, Basil has discovered it is an Anglo-Saxon burial ship. It is a revelation for the archeology world for it is a light into the dark ages.
This is a massive discovery. Edith and Basil rejoice but are distracted by the planes flying overhead. The war marches ever closer.
The Dig looks at death in a way that most films only dance around. Its characters are obsessed with it in one way or another, partially because they are archaeologists, partly because they may soon have to enlist, or partly because like Edith they have been given a diagnosis that they do not have much time left. Even her nephew Rory (Johnny Flynn), who she invited to help Basil, is awaiting his papers to be drafted into the RAF.
Stone and Buffini intertwine these stories and these people brilliantly in a way that is both easy to grasp and also deeply revealing. Take Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) the expert archeologist who tries to take the excavation away from Basil once they realize how important the dig is but must reluctantly work alongside him. He is an officious and sneering individual who nonetheless allowed humanity. While getting drunk at a tavern with his fellow archaeologists they overhear the news that War is mere hours away.
“Here we go again,” Phillps says. Stott’s delivery belies a man who can not believe he is about to live through another war so soon.
Eley’s almost pastoral lighting and framing are partially why The Dig is not overwhelmingly depressing. Eley and Stone find ways to deliver harsh truths but not falling into despair. They never let the harsh reality and uncertainty of death bury the notion that life is precious and needs living.
Enter Peggy Piggott (Lily James), the wife of Stuart (Ben Chaplin) a protege of Phillips. They have come down to help with the dig. Peggy’s initial excitement to be invited is quickly curtailed when she discovers that she was only invited because of how tiny she is. “Lucky Piggott didn’t marry a cow!”
It becomes clear rather quickly that Stuart would rather spend time with one of the other diggers, a handsome man who seems to return Stuart’s affections. Though this does mark another attempt by filmmakers to try and convince me that Lily James is a plain-looking frumpish girl who no man or woman would ever look twice at. At least this time they put glasses on her, it doesn’t work but I enjoy the futile game nonetheless.
Of course, Peggy and Rory will find themselves being drawn together, much in the same way Basil and Edith do. Neither of them will do much, the most anyone commits is emotional adultery, but it is another way Stone and Buffini show us how uncertain life is. Basil’s wife May (Monica Dolan) shows up and we sense their relationship has become strained.
But it doesn’t stay that way. May even hints that she knows that Basil and Edith have grown close in some way or another. To say that she is understanding is to oversimplify May. Besides, she likes Edith’s son Robert (Archie Barnes) and knows Basil enough that there are parts of him she will never know. But that doesn’t mean they don’t love each other or that she isn’t slightly hurt.
The Dig pulsates with a poetic tenderness that suits our own uncertain era. Peggy tells Stuart that she knows that he is gay, though they never say the word. “I’ve seen you when you’re happy, it’s beautiful.” The ache in James’s voice reveals that she is both happy for him and hurt that she is not the one who makes him happy. He says he could learn to be happy but Peggy understands far too well how fleeting life is and it won’t do making someone live a lie, no matter the heartache.
Little Robert has a moment when he realizes just how sick his mother is. As a child, he does what he knows and that’s to run. He bumps into Basil, literally. He cries and tells him after his father died everyone told him he was the man of the house and he was to look after his mother. “And I failed. I failed.”
“Robert, we all fail. Every day. There are some things we just can’t succeed at no matter how hard we try.”
Later we see that Basil and Rober have laid out some blankets and pillows for Edith to lie out under the stars deep in the center of the burial ship. Robert and Edith look out unto the great endless night as they quietly and lovingly say their goodbyes.
I have witnessed too much death in my time and the last few months. We all have. The Dig understands this and reminds us that others have felt the same way in situations that felt equally as daunting and incomprehensible. Stone has given us a movie in which we are permitted to grieve and cry for those who have died in a collective sense. He also reminds us that the past is always reaching out to us, comforting us, and reminding us we are loved, and that we are not alone.
Image courtesy of Netflix
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