Simon Stone crafts an exquisite drama about the importance of history on our personal and societal stories, anchored by beautiful turns from Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes.
There are certain places that, when you visit, you can feel the weight of time pushing up from under your feet. In 2015, I was visiting a friend in Sweden when his partner took us to the island of Oland, where you can touch the monolith headstones of the Vikings buried there. In one spot, two rows of stones met, parted, and met again in a longboat shape. I’ve thought about that day often since then, the long-dead warriors whose monuments I could touch. Less than a year later, my friend would be gone, but I will always remember that day, the way the time-worn stone felt under my hands.
With that said, The Dig affected me in a way that I wholly didn’t expect. I expected a stuffy period drama, a heavily romanticised version of real-life events. But director Simon Stone and screenwriter Moira Buffini take meticulous care to guide the viewer through the excavation, connecting remembrance to death and past to present throughout the nearly two-hour runtime. Mike Eley’s exquisite cinematography makes the most of the English countryside, showing it at it’s sun-soaked best and rain-soaked worst. It’s a beautiful, surprisingly graceful story of how we remember, and how we are remembered.
Ralph Fiennes plays Basil Brown, a sun-roughened savant with a deep understanding of the earth and the secrets it holds. Brown is hired by sickly widow Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) to excavate the burial mounds on her Suffolk estate, Sutton Hoo. Edith and Basil quickly bond over their love of learning, knowledge, and history. “It speaks, dunnit? The past.” Basil says to Edith when she tells him she has a feeling about one of the mounds.
There’s a hint of desire that lingers in those early beats—not physical passion or anything approaching romantic love—but rather the desire for the companionship of a kindred spirit. Edith has no one but her servants and her young son, Robert (an impressive Archie Barnes) for company. Basil is supported by his fiercely loyal wife May (Monica Dolan), but longs for a true intellectual equal. And while there is no romance to be had between the two, they dovetail beautifully as two individuals whose hunger for knowledge was thwarted by their situations in life. Basil had to leave school at a young age to help provide for his family, and Edith’s father wouldn’t allow her to take the place she’d earned at the University of London.
When Basil finds that the mounds contain the remains of an Anglo-Saxon burial ship from the 7th Century, the discovery brings experts from the British Museum into play, widening the circle of people drawn into Basil and Edith’s orbit. Edith’s cousin Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn) comes to document the dig, but spends most of his time exchanging longing looks with married archeologist Peggy Piggett (Lily James). Peggy—who learns she is only there because of her size rather than her knowledge of archeology—realizes her husband Stuart (Ben Chaplin) would rather look elsewhere. Specifically, at one of his colleagues from the Museum.
It’s a beautiful, surprisingly graceful story of how we remember, and how we are remembered.
At times, this side plot can feel extraneous, especially with Fiennes and Mulligan giving such quietly compelling performances at the forefront. But Rory’s enlistment in the RAF further underscores both the looming threat of war and the reminder that death is never very far. It doesn’t hurt that James and Flynn are two beautiful people who happen to be very good at what they do.
The joy of the discoveries—first uncovering the ship, then its treasure—strikes some real emotional high notes, made bittersweet by Edith’s declining health. While Edith tries to keep calm and carry on, Basil fears that his name will be kept off of his own discovery. Like Edith, he needs to feel certain that he will be remembered, that part of him will go on. After the remains are unearthed and the inquest determines that the find (and its treasures) belong to Edith, she finally breaks down. It’s not the inquest that upsets her, but the too-close-for-comfort reality that “we die and decay. We don’t live on.”
But Basil disagrees. “From the first human handprint on a cave wall, we’re part of something continuous. So we don’t really die.” It’s a remarkable moment in a movie stuffed with remarkable moments, evoking the feeling that time is gossamer thin, that memory and remembrance are real, tangible things. A ship, a stone, a picture of a loved one gone. We only have to be brave enough to reach out and touch it.
The Dig comes out of the ground and onto Netflix January 29th.