‘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 For a historical reference point, just seventeen years earlier, English archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun.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

The Rant of the Armchair Traveller

From the comments in my last post, seems like Egyptology is a favorite subject of many, if not now, at least some time in our curious life. I’ve had the chance to visit Egypt twice during my travels to the Middle East. Since now is the warm month of May, kicking off the travelling season, and alas, since going anywhere far is a remote possibility for me at present, an armchair revisit is timely, if only to suppress burning wanderlust.

Here are some file photos from my last trip to Egypt five years ago. I only stayed in Cairo and its vicinity. But from my recent reading of Lord Carnarvon and Carter’s King Tut Tomb discovery, I regret I didn’t venture further to the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. However, I did see the iconic King Tut’s mummy mask at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. Photography was forbidden, so no King Tut’s portrait here.

But I can show you another marvellous exhibit. In 1954, a Pharoah’s boat dating back four millenium was dug up in pieces and since reassembled. Beautifully showcased in another museum near the Great Pyramid of Giza. Photos were allowed here, but Arti’s pocket Lumix wasn’t enough to capture the magnificent whole. If you’re interested, click here to a full description.

Pharaoh’s Boat buried 26th Century B.C.

Another view:

The Pyramid and the Sphinx are probably what travellers go to Egypt for. While the Sphinx is a limestone statue of the mythical creature with the lion body and the human head, the Pyramid was piled up in stones. Can’t say which one is easier to make.

The oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that is still standing, The Great Pyramid of Giza was built for the fourth dynasty Egyptian Pharaoh Khufu, a 20 year construction process which concluded around 2560 B.C. (Wikipedia data) As for Arti, no exact date was needed. Standing at the foot of the humungous pile of neatly stacked up stones was an experience itself.

The Great Pyramid of Giza

Not far from the Pyramid, The Sphinx:

The Pyramid and The Sphinx

A closer look… so what if I’ve lost a nose, I still stand sit after all these years:

Let the stones speak:

and the children listen:

We were travelling in a bus through the desert, and stopped for a view. Here are some other children I saw, took this picture through the window:

Mount Sinai, the legendary place Moses received the Ten Commandments from God. At the foot of the mountain range is St. Catherine’s Monastery:

 Man’s best friend. They wait without complaint:

The desert is mesmerizing regardless of the hour:

Desert moon at dusk

While I faithfully pick up mail for neighbors gone to Paris, or read with pleasure blog posts of your recent travels, I feel like jumping on the armchair bandwagon and join the massive global tourism movement. Ok everyone, I’m coming along.


Lady Almina and the real Downton Abbey: Facts that give rise to Fiction

Downton Abbey in real life is Highclere Castle, situated among a thousand acres of beautiful parkland, perching on a hill with a vantage point of even more spectacular views. It is home to the Earls of Carnarvon for centuries. The book is written by Fiona Carnarvon. Lady Almina is the great grandmother of her husband, the 8th Earl of Carnarvon. The book chronicles the life and legacy of Lady Almina, who married into Highclere at 19, and evolved from a youthful debutante to a seasoned and capable, aristocratic lady with a heart. Here is the source material for the fictional creation so well received by viewers all over the world.

I’m not one easily swayed to follow what’s being hailed in current culture. But for some reasons I’ve been drawn to the human drama of the hugely successful Downton Abbey. Until I read this book I have not thought that mere facts can be as engaging as fiction. Compared to the epic proportion of historical events detailed in the book, the TV series are but minute vingnettes, albeit they do have their endearing appeal.

This is my library copy of the book after I finished reading it. There are no less than 80 tiny yellow stickies to mark my interest:

At first, I was expecting a book offering tidbits of the Highclere Castle, its designs and architecture, and how its life, both upstairs and downstairs, corresponds with the TV production, etc.

But while it lacks the design and architectural specifics I was looking for, the book has brought me something else. Yes, there is a myriad of Edwardian high society accounts, the fashion and the opulence, as expected. But to my surprise, the latter part of the book offers a greater appeal to me. I was fully absorbed by its massive archival information on The Great War, from the trenches in Europe to the battlefields in the Middle East, wartime to post-war politics, Highclere’s involvement in international power brokerage, George’s brother Aubrey and T.E. Lawrence’s friendship, and the last chapters bring me to the archeological site of the Valley of the Kings in Egypt.

Nurse Almina

Unlike the Crawleys in Downton Abbey, the Carnarvons threw themselves fully into the war effort without hesitation. As soon as Britain entered The Great War (1914-1918), Highclere was turned into a well-equipped hospital, not just a convalescence home. Financially supported by her wealthy father, Almina hired the best in medical personel, well-trained nurses and specialized doctors, and furnished the Caslte with state-of-the-art equipment. Almina herself oversaw the whole operation and heavily involved in personal nursing care as well. A real-life Lady Cora/Isabel Crawley working in unity.

Seeing Matthew Crawley’s muddy face in the trenches cannot convey to me the horrors of the war. The detailed accounts in the book are terrifying to read. There were so many ways to die: guns and shells, broken bones even just a broken femur, long, bumpy rides to a hospital, gas, hunger, diseases, lack of medical supplies and doctors, even rain. Non-stop rain in Passchendaele had caused trenches to collapse, drowning many soldiers in the mud.

The Battle of Somme claimed 60,000 lives on its first day on July 1, 1916. Four months later, 415,000 British and Dominions soldiers had been killed or wounded. The Battle of Ypres saw the Germans use a new weapon. 168 tonnes of chlorine gas was released into Allied positions. 5,000 French soldiers in the trenches died within ten minutes, 10,000 were blinded as they escaped. In 1917, the number of British casualties and injured totalled 800,000. Many of Highclere staff were wounded and killed, those sent home were the lucky ones. The missing and the ones buried on foreign soil made the impact even more heartbreaking.

The Dowager Countess of Carnarvon, Elsie, had always been receptive to innovations and improvements. Unlike her counterpart in Downton Violet Crawley, Elsie welcomed electricity and the telephone. In 1919, at 63, she became vice-chairman of the Vocal Therapy Society and promoted the use of singing to help shell-shocked men to overcome debilitating stammers. Umm… she would have made a good team with Lionel Logue, who set up shop on Harley Street. Just ask Bertie KGVI, he knew it worked.

On a totally different note, the last chapters of the book transport me to the archaeological site of the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt. Almina’s husband George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, was one of the last British aristocratic archaeologists, having spent £50,000 (£10 million in today’s money) over the course of fourteen years on excavating in Egypt.

Howard Carter, left, & Carnarvon at King Tut’s tomb

Lord Carnarvon personally hired the expert archaeologist Howard Carter to team up with him in his pursuit of Egyptian antiquities. Their breakthrough work came in 1922, when they discovered the burial chamber of the young King Tutankhamun. Unlike rumors that had distressed the archaeological dual that they would ship the finds to England, the King Tut artifacts have  been the possession of the Egyptian government since the discovery.

I had not realized the connection before… how Downton Abbey could have a certain degree of separation from King Tut. But the book soon ends with the sad news that the already weak Lord Carnarvon soon succumbed to illness. He died in Cairo at age 57, just a few months after the excavation. It’s noted in the book that at the time of his death, back at Highclere Castle in the night, his beloved terrier Susie howled once and died.

Here I’ve just touched on a few yellow stickies. You need to read the book to grasp all the significant events during that first quarter of the 20th century. As the book has been written and published ‘in record time’ as the author has noted, likely to coincide with the broadcast of Downton Abbey Season 2, it is not a literary work, not even a social or political commentary of any sort. Yes, I was looking for the author’s view on aristocracy and the Empire. Nevertheless, it is a compact historical account that chronicles the lives of some individuals who had left indelible marks in an era of irreversible change and new discoveries. 

Excellent Photos, A Bibliography of researched works and archival materials, and an Index make up the supplementary resources.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle by The Countess of Carnarvon, Broadway Paperbacks, NY, November, 2011, 310 pages.


Other posts you may like:

Quotable Quotes from Downton Abbey

The Rant of the Armchair Traveller