‘The Dig’ is a Visual Meditation on Time and Life

Don’t judge a movie by its title. The seemingly uninspiring title packs a lot of story and ideas. Based on a true event and the novel of the same name by John Preston, the dig refers to the historic excavation of an Anglo-Saxon ship and the treasures inside its burial chamber, the medieval grave of possibly a warrior king dating back to 600’s AD. The archaeological event took place at the start of WWII in 1939 on Edith Pretty’s Sutton Hoo property in Suffolk, England. For a historical reference point, just seventeen years earlier, English archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Director Simon Stone has chosen to turn a spectacular archeological find into a lyrical, visual narrative that is elegiac and ponderous in tone. His focus isn’t so much on the unearthed treasures but the process of the dig, and the human stories adhere to it. A valuable asset Stone holds in his helm is an excellent cast.

Carey Mulligan plays Edith Pretty, the widow of a Colonel whom she still mourns at his grave while raising their young son Robert (Archie Barnes). As an amateur archeology enthusiast, she has a feeling the mounds on her grounds have something significant buried. Hiring a local excavator, Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), she watches her hunch realized.

However, Edith’s deteriorating heart condition is a constant reminder of her own mortality, a tug at her soul, brewing a deep concern for her son Robert after she’s gone. Mulligan acts not just with her facial expressions; her whole body speaks to the fragility of life. While treasures are unearthed, her fears and sentiments are buried deep within.

To interplay with Mulligan’s delicate demeanor, Fiennes delivers an understated performance with the unglamorous character Basil Brown. A country excavator, stooped in posture, quiet yet determined, apparently knowing much more than he shows. It is gratifying to see the two of them interact in a naturalistic way, their expressions equally sensitive and nuanced.

Reading about Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tuktankamun, Edith is apprehensive about finding human remains in the dig, as that’s like disinterring the dead. Brown answers with his view of the philosophy of the discipline: “… that’s life what’s revealed. And that’s why we dig.” And, as his wife May (Monica Dolan) points out, it’s about continuity for the next generations, so they know where they come from.

The ‘untrained’ Brown––with no academic credentials but learned the skill from his father passed down from his grandfather––has to yield to the authority of the famous archaeologist from the British Museum, Charles Phillips (Ken Stott). Phillips takes over the dig as soon as he arrives on the site with his team of specialists.

Among them are the archaeologist couple Stuart Piggott (Ben Chaplin) and his young wife Peggy (Lily James). Their incompatibility is obvious; Stuart is happier with fellow team member John Brailsford (Eamon Farren) than with his wife. Later, the arrival of Edith’s cousin Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn, Mr. Knightley of Emma, 2020) further alters the relational dynamics. While at the dig, Rory is called up by the RAF, a worrisome commission as war with Germany breaks out.

There’s interesting play with sound, or the lack of. For some short moments in certain scenes, there’s just silence. All sound and music halt. Most other times, the score is meditative, quiet piano playing. There are often juxtapositions of scenes linked by voice-overs, offering a fresh way of storytelling. This is effective not just to show what’s happening at different places or time, but that the dialogues can be relevant for different people in other situations as well.

Cinematographer Mike Eley captures on screen some exquisite sights of the English open country, wide shots shrouded with a hazy light, sometimes teal, sometimes golden. Terence Davies’s Sunset Song comes to mind, albeit The Dig is a much quieter film.

Young Robert’s fantasy with the cosmos and his imaginary tales cannot be brushed away as just spice to animate the mood. Kudos to Moira Buffini’s screenplay, the film wraps up with mother and son laying close together in the dug-up ship under a starry sky at night, as Robert tells his mother and Brown observing nearby, his woven tale of the ship taking the queen home to the stars to meet the king, leaving everyone behind, a poignant metaphor and a fable-like send off. Mulligan and Barnes are treasures here. That aerial shot is magical.

The Dig begins streaming January 29, 2021 on Netflix. I’ve watched it twice so far, once isn’t enough to capture all that need to be noted to appreciate.

~ ~ ~ ½ Ripples

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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

21 thoughts on “‘The Dig’ is a Visual Meditation on Time and Life”

  1. Oh, I want to see this one. I not only want to see it, I’m going to see it — I have it in my Netflix queue right now. When I read the title, the first thing that came to mind was the excavation and preservation of LaSalle’s ship, LaBelle, in Matagorda Bay. That’s not precisely in my back yard, but it’s close enough that I’ve sailed the area where they found the ship and pulled it out. There’s a nice short article from our historical commission here.


    1. Linda, this is 1,000 years before the La Belle. I’m sure you’ll be interested to check out online about this one: Sutton Hoo excavation. There are many websites and photos, but since this ship is so ancient and the wood so fragile, I think they left it there but just took the treasures out, now in the British Museum.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I can’t remember exactly, but those wood issues were real with the LaBelle, too. I think (but am not sure) that they have it in some sort of ‘wet tank’ to keep it from disintegrating. I’m going to look up both of them.


  2. Arti, an excellent meditation on this absolutely lovely movie – thank you for getting the word out so quickly – I though the acting brilliant, the silences (as you say) gripping in their own way, the story compelling – and interesting that another very recent Anglo-Saxon find makes us realize how little we really know about anything…


    1. Deb, I’ve been looking forward to this one, and glad to see it doesn’t disappoint. Although I must say upon second viewing I came to appreciate it more, particularly the camera framing capturing the nuances of their facial expressions. Mulligan and Fiennes, I sure hope they will have more films together.


  3. Beautifully put together but it had a few niggles for me. One of them was the costumes, especially Lily James’s outfits. They didn’t seem practical enough for digging, designed more for filmic good looks than authenticity. Also at times the music was too intrusive. The story and setting were enough without it.
    It was great to learn about this real life story in this way, though. Very enjoyable. And great that we can actually watch the same film for once without me having wait months or years for the UK release.


    1. Denise, glad you have a chance of watching this as well. Yes, in a pandemic, this is probably the best way to show a film, streaming online, and not wait for theatres to open to allow social distancing showings. I was told in one theatre they allowed only four different couples to sit inside to watch a movie. Streaming definitely can reach many more viewers and across national borders as well.

      About Lily James’s outfits, that’s exactly the point: in the film, she mentions she doesn’t have the proper clothing for the dig because she and her husband just come directly from a holiday, apparently they are called to the dig due to its sudden, significant find, so they have no time to head home first. Remember Edith sees her poorly equipped attire and tells her kindly that she can borrow from her wardrobe. And that explains the latter part we see her wearing slacks. BTW, love the costume Edith wears while out on the fields at the dig.

      The Sutton Hoo House is turned into a museum itself. More info on the National Trust website here and here.


      1. Ah I watched in Spanish so I think I missed the bit about the explanation of the outfits. Some of the outfits just seemed a bit short and tight for World War II times. (It’s strange how watching in a different language can make you focus on visual and aural clues more.)


  4. Very tempting, Arti, after your wonderful review which makes me wonder if I’d catch the nuances you highlight. I don’t have Netflix, but may see if I can get it on my mom’s queue.


  5. We’re in full agreement here! You lay out even in more detail than I did the film’s many layered rewards. I feel you were especially spot on below:

    “Director Simon Stone has chosen to turn a spectacular archeological find into a lyrical, visual narrative that is elegiac and ponderous in tone. His focus isn’t so much on the unearthed treasures but the process of the dig, and the human stories adhere to it. A valuable asset Stone holds in his helm is an excellent cast.”


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