Just Below the Surface (Film Review: “The Dig”)

Based on the true story of the archeological wonder discovered in an English widow’s pasture on the eve of WWII. A moving elegy about the permanence of Death and the continuum of Life.

SnapShot Plot

As England is gearing up to join the war against Hitler’s Germany, a wealthy young widow and archeology enthusiast named Edith Pretty enlists a self-trained excavator/archeologist named Basil Brown to solve a long-running mystery. Located on Mrs. Pretty’s Suffolk country estate – named Sutton Hoo – are a series of 18 huge mounds in the earth, the origins of which had remained a source of debate for generations. The Dig is the film adaptation of the novel of the same name, based on the true story of the incredible “Sutton Hoo” discovery: an Anglo-Saxon burial ship whose origins date back so far that it ranks among the most important archeological finds in British history.

Carey Mulligan gives a grounded, somber gravitas to her portrayal of Edith Pretty, a priviledged yet honor-driven woman with a sincere admiration for those who dedicate their life’s work to the preservation of the history of mankind. Ralph Fiennes is exceptional as Basil Brown, with a country accent so thick it may call for subtitles. Moreover, in his every gesture and glance, from the way he washes his hands under a spigot or lights his pipe, to the way he wields a shovel, Fiennes is mesmerizing in his capture of a working man auto-didact whose knowledge could fill textbooks. In their nuanced and understated relationship, they signal a true meeting of the minds while still adhering to the societal confines of the day, making the suspense of the dig itself and its outcome even more emotionally stirring.

When news of what probably lies beneath the ground at Sutton Hoo reaches the wider scientific community and the country at large, the world comes knocking, bringing with it certain ethical conundrums to Mrs. Pretty as they directly affect Mr. Brown and his efforts. By that time, Edith’s young son, Robert has formed an indelible bond with Basil Brown and turns to him for solace when he realizes another unspeakable loss he may have yet to endure.

Lily James (fast becoming a NSP favorite) arrives half-way into the story as a young, frustrated wife to a distracted archeologist played by Ben Chaplin. Her discovery of the heart strikes a poignant note as throughout the film we see the country preparing for war, with countless young boys and men heading to military service, against our knowledge that few will return home.

Parting Shot

Directed by Simon Stone from the book by John Preston, The Dig is of course more than a story about archeology, just as The Professor and the Madman was more than a story about dictionaries. Obviously, both films centered on auto-didacts, self taught individuals who achieve a level of expertise incredible for the lack of a formal education. And yes, Basil Brown is exceptional in his quiet, unassuming way. And appreciated as such by Mrs. Pretty from the start.

But digging below the surface, to the deeper truths unearthed in this lovely film, we are confronted with the profound questions that have plagued mankind since he was compelled to scratch out images on cave walls. Questions about the meaning of Life, and the finality of Death. And what we leave behind. . . and whether that matters, in the long run. It’s best expressed by Basil Brown’s wife (so naturally played by Monica Dolan) in a scene that could’ve been almost a throwaway:

“You always told me you was working in the past, not even for the present but for the future. So that the next generations can know where they came from. The line that joins them to their forbearers. Isn’t that what you always say? Why else would the lot of you be playing around in the dirt while the rest of the country prepares for war? Cause that means something, doesn’t it? Something that’ll last longer than whatever damn war we’re heading into.”

Now that’s what I call unearthed treasure.

The Dig is presently streaming on Netflix.

Overlooking the famous excavation of Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo. Recent excavations have uncovered surprising later aspects of the cemetery’s later use. (Photo: Sutton Hoo Archive)

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  • Anthony + Jaye Abbate says:

    There were so many layers to this story. Like an archaeological dig the plot and subplots reveal more about the characters and their situations, bound by social norms and fate yet every step of the way they make small choices- that lead to powerful storytelling and images. We so enjoyed this film!

    • Norma says:

      Indeed. . . so happy this quiet gem is receiving the admiration it deserves. And so thrilled that it brought you as much pleasure as it did me. Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

  • Judy says:

    Always love your perspective. Really enjoyed the film. Checked Wikipedia of course. Despite Brown’s inability to get his straight formal education, he got a lot of education from adult courses and reading. Loved Feines portrayal.

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