Image description: Ralph Fiennes playing archaeologist Basil Brown in The Dig
The excavation of Sutton Hoo may seem like an odd choice for Netflix’s new movie; archaeology doesn’t really fill people with excitement unless it is Indiana Jones. However, The Dig (2021), directed by Simon Stone, manages to make an exceedingly compelling dramatisation of real-life events. Its quietness and subtlety exude true confidence in story-telling, character development and its enquiry into what makes us alive and human.
Set in picturesque rural Suffolk in 1939, estate owner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) employs amateur archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to investigate some large mounds on the estate. Quickly we find the story is not about the discovery of the buried ship and its treasure, but instead what the site meant to the people around it in a country where war loomed. Here is where we find the actual interest of the story; the characters, the real people who helped discover this true historic goldmine, were so rich with intrigue and complexities.
The film evokes a world holding its breath in anticipation for both war and one of the greatest archaeological discoveries.
Fiennes and Mulligan did an astonishing job of bringing these quiet, worn-down people to life. They embodied their characters in such a respectful and understated way- I can scarcely believe that it wasn’t the real Basil Brown being filmed in all his passion for knowledge and understanding. I think Stone often tried to incorporate modern documentary techniques within the body of the movie to make it seem like a natural performance; nothing was too staged, but with every word there was something raw and human to capture from it. I especially enjoyed the voiceovers of Basil and Mrs Brown over the lonely Edith Pretty as she dressed for bed.
The cinematography and all the technicalities of the movie couldn’t be faulted. The scenes were effortlessly beautiful, but often the wide shots gave a real sense of loneliness, reflecting the two lives of the central characters. The costumes too, fitted the time and the class of the individuals well, which was a constant theme throughout the movie. I would say that I don’t remember much of the soundtrack and at times led me to wonder whether there was one at all. Yet, as I constantly reach for a thesaurus to research synonyms for quiet, I do not think this is a bad thing at all. The subtlety of the soundtrack emphasises the sense of The Dig’s detachment from the world: when RAF planes pass above, their noise cutting through the quietness is a brief reminder that Britain is on the brink of something. The film evokes a world holding its breath in anticipation for both war and one of the greatest archaeological discoveries.
I’d probably agree with Mark Kermode that one of the few flaws of the movie is the addition of the romance between Johnny Flynn and Lily James’ characters. Both are terrific actors, but their story was just simply less compelling than the others, in particular Brown and Pretty. Yet, while it may have taken a few minutes away from others, I do not think this detracts from the overall movie, it was just one thing that didn’t add to it.
What is truly beautiful about this moody dramatisation is its permanent melancholy. It is self-aware that there is a theme of death throughout the movie: the burial they were uncovering, Edith Pretty’s entire life and the impending war. It makes the movie sad, poignant and emotional, yes, but it also gives us scope to explore this theme. It explores the idea of having a legacy, the importance of what we leave behind for others, whether they are close to us or are generations away. It also shows us it is alright to be concerned by death. Edith left behind her son and the Sutton Hoo treasures for all the world to see.
What is truly beautiful about this moody dramatisation is its permanent melancholy.
However, as frequently predicted throughout the movie by Basil himself, for a long time he did not get any recognition for his meticulous and fundamental work on the site. By the end we see that the movie is now part of the legacy that for so long was deprived of him. He left behind a story that would capture the hearts of whoever chose to listen to it.
In this movie we are reminded that death and life are always intertwined, that we walk in the footsteps of the many who have lived before us, that we shall leave behind a world that will continue living without us. We all have some sort of legacy, no matter how big or small. We may not all get a burial ship to remember us by, but we will be remembered.
Image Credit: FolkEast via Facebook