The Dig (2021)

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

Few movies stop to ponder the meaning of death, but The Dig gives audiences a unique opportunity to consider what they want to leave behind in the world once they depart from it.

English widow Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) has as “instinct” about the strange mounts on her country estate. In her desire to excavate them in hopes of making archeological discoveries, she phones up the British Museum, who recommends Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes). An unschooled amateur expert with a wealth of knowledge into the past, he agrees to start one of the smaller mounds for her, stating that the previous excavation upon the largest by thieves may have robbed it of any meaningful treasures. He sets to work, while the rest of the country prepares for war. Rumors of Hitler’s influence spread across Europe, and the Air Force begin training men for combat missions.

The “dig” keeps Edith’s young son entertained. An imaginative boy full of grand ideas about space battles, Robert (Archie Barns) also has an instinct about his mother… that her “heart burn” is something far more serious. She agrees. It seems harder and harder to keep up her energy, so she visits a doctor and hears unfortunate news. It coincides with Basil’s decision to dig into the larger mound, and his incredible discovery of an ancient ship buried beneath the good country earth. Suddenly, their discovery sparks attention… that could threaten to take the dig away from them, on the brink of war. A budding friendship with a romantic undercurrent makes up the subplot, between Edith’s cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn) and the newly married but underappreciated (by her husband) Peggy (Lily James).

Though I haven’t read the novel on which this story is based, I found it a slow-moving and emotionally engaging story, just as much about people attempting to reconcile their beliefs about life and death, as it is about the discovery of the Sutton Hoo treasures. It also gives Basil Brown his due; the man who discovered and dug out most of the boat went unrecognized and forgotten by history until recently, when his name was finally added to the plaque in the museum, giving him credit for his hard work. That is a preoccupation that Basil and Edith both share in this story—he is reaching the end of a long life, and wants his name to be remembered, just as no one knows the name of the king buried under the mound. And Edith is facing her approaching death, and wants to leave behind something also, a generous gift of treasures for “everyone to see.” There are many quiet but meaningful discussions about death, and what we leave behind; how our bones fall to pieces and our bodies decay, but remnants are left in the earth of us. In that sense, it’s a melancholy story, because the film has no answers, and these people have no faith in God to assure them they have meaning, simply as His beloved children.

The side plot about an unhappily married woman seems unnecessary, and her eventual adultery, while understandable, is also sad. But it’s typical of the period; on the brink of war, faced with the realization that one or both of them could die, many young people “lived for the moment, and seized it.” For the most part, the content is tame for a PG-13, the storyline melancholic, and the acting sublime. Carey is twenty years younger than the real Edith Pretty, but she has the gravitas to handle the strain of a woman whose body is failing her. Ralph is wonderful, as usual, as a man of strained emotions but who loves to reach for the stars. Lily does her best with what the script provides her, and is a likable side character. And this part suits Johnny more than his previous costume dramas (Emma, and Vanity Fair).

It's a slow tale with more psychological weight behind it than the trailers might infer, and it might bore some people looking for more action, but it's perfect for those who like to ponder the meaning of life.

Sexual Content:
Peggy's husband bursts in on her and finds her in the tub (it's a quick look, and the grayish water covers up the important bits); he tells her she ought to be more careful, anyone could walk in. She teases him about it in their room and lowers her robe to seduce him (we see her bare back), but he pushes her away (it's implied he's Gay). Later, she almost kisses another man, but stops herself. After throwing her wedding ring away and telling her husband it's over, she has sex with Rory in an old ruin (we see them kissing, and him moving on top of her, in a distant shot, before it pans away).
 
Language:
None noted, maybe a use of God or two.
 
Violence:
A cave-in almost kills a man, who has to be resuscitated. A plane crashes into the river and its pilot dies.

Other:
Themes of death.