Death Lies Beneath Discovery: A Review of The Dig (2021)
Directed by Simon Stone, Screenplay by Moira Buffini and based on the story by John Preston
by Ashleigh Chow | 17 February 2021
It’s a bleak Friday wintry afternoon. Grey skies overcast, I tune in to The Dig.
Part-fiction and part-reality, the film chronicles the fascinating discovery of Sutton Hoo in rural Suffolk. The sentimental landowner Mrs Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) is introduced abruptly. Convinced that secrets lay underneath the mounds on her land, the young widow engages the local excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to dig them up. Lo and behold, it turns out to be the extraordinary discovery of the Sutton Hoo, an immensely sophisticated buried boat (“90 feet from one end to another!”) dating to the 7th century Anglo-Saxons. It might be a dark day outside for me, but on my screen, it’s the dawn of an apparent huge discovery: the “Dark Ages” might not have been Dark indeed. A thrill of hope to the English, the Anglo-Saxons were more civilised than previously ever thought! But take away the triumphant echoes of victory, that’s not how the film plays out either: set in summer 1939, the film itself is dark and subdued, loomed by the viewer’s knowledge of the impending war.
The storyline itself is so fascinating on its own, that the film could have been rendered in any way possible. Yet the directors went for understated, employing a graceful reticence. Gracefulness and reticence, of course, is embodied by the gentle but ailing Mrs Edith Pretty, played so befittingly by Mulligan. (What’s not to love?) Over the course of the film, death comes to pervade all facets of the slowly-ailing Mrs Pretty’s life. For Mrs Pretty, pockets of contemplation are scattered throughout the film: with hospital visits, moments recounting the late Colonel Pretty, and hints of sonic booms as RAF jets sail over the site — made even more apparent later at the discovery of the Sutton Hoo as a burial site, and finally, the announcement of the war outbreak. In all its sentimentality, Mrs Pretty’s charmingly keen son turns it sweet. The young Robert Pretty (Archie Barnes) takes one back to the curiosities and enthusiasm of childhood, inciting the optimism of another world waiting to be discovered.
Weaving through scenes of Mrs Pretty mourning the death of her husband (buried undersoil, of course), the little Robert develops – I daresay – a fatherly bond with the excavator Basil Brown. Robert is keen on astronomy and archaeology, and their interactions are nothing short of heartwarming, as Mr Brown even goes so far as to promise to show him his telescope to watch the night sky. This developing father-son bond leads one to quietly question the potential relationship between the excavator and his beautiful employer - but any potential of this is later cut short and buried quickly.
As for bits I appreciated less, the introduction of Mrs Peggy Piggott (Lily James) deviated from the core sentimentality of the story. A budding archaeologist herself, she shows up halfway through the excavation alongside her husband (Ben Chaplin), of whom she has little success with in the marital bed. With her over-enthusiasm of a teacher’s pet and in general, unexciting conversation, one empathises yet ultimately struggles to care enough for her. Like I said, understated as it is, the film goes so much as to merely hint to you Mr Piggott’s relationship with an another Mr Braithwaite. But really, it is included only to provide the gap in the plot for a love line between Peggy and Mrs Pretty’s supposedly hot and loving cousin, Rory Lomax. I doubt this story arc will sidetrack you though, because if you’re anything like me, within two minutes of her subplot you will be wondering how delightful little Robert’s archaeological efforts are doing today.
It’s not humour exactly, but there is an entertaining cynicism underlying in the curators and archaeologists’ behaviour. Introduced at the beginning, the local curators at the Ipswich Museum disparagingly dismiss Mrs Pretty and Mr Brown’s archaeological efforts: Mr Brown is informed that the Roman villa nearby is far more interesting to excavate, advising him quickly to abandon the Sutton Hoo project. Mr Brown refuses to budge, citing the council’s low pay and allegiance to his new employer, as they leave him alone to continue solo. That is until they realise, as we know it, that the Sutton Hoo is indeed far more extraordinary than previously perceived. And unsurprisingly, they come back to pester. As if to make things even worse, the snobby Oxbridge-educated British Museum curator Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) forcibly jumps aboard too (pun intended). The snobbery of the cultural intelligentsia is immense here, as sharply-dressed men in tweed, topped with round-rimmed tortoiseshell glasses demand to take over the Great Ship Burial, citing its national significance – and the self-taught archaeologist Mr Brown is intimidated at this point. “I might not even get a footnote,” Mr Brown laments. Questioning his own capability and qualifications, Mr Brown nearly leaves the project. He knows what the British Museum is like, it seems. Aligning with the British Museum’s sneaky track record, the BM is keen to acquire and instal the artefacts and take over all restorative work, while curators at the regional Ipswich Museum vie for Mrs Pretty’s donation. At the brink of this all, Mrs Pretty remains unperturbed by the ownership crisis, preoccupied by her own thoughts on life and death.
I turned the film on expecting an exciting, fast-paced film. But with this, I was not disappointed either. The handheld camera work and subdued tones lend itself to the sense of a quiet contemplation of mourning and loss, one that seems appropriate today. Amidst the new discoveries, more uncertainties of death are uncovered. Life is fleeting, indeed. In a film so bound up in the questions of life and death, Mrs Edith Pretty - and her graceful reticence - leads me to wonder: maybe what is buried should remain buried.