My theory is that there were no new releases at my local movie theater this past weekend because it was Valentine’s Day. Typically, one of the go-to’s for any guy desperate for some kind of romantic outing on the so-called most romantic day of the year is dinner and a movie. One of the great things about the theater I attend most often is that you can have both of these features in one sitting. You have got to love modern convenience. And who am I to call anyone “desperate” when I am single and not getting any younger. Anyway, since we are still dealing with COVID, I am guessing they did not want to encourage larger than (new) normal crowds at cinemas. Thus when I opened my Flixster app on Saturday to check out the listings, all I saw were a bunch of films the Legionnaire already reviewed. Undeterred, I defaulted to a recent suggestion from a good friend of mine that I see more Netflix movies. I mostly watch documentaries on that service, but one that caught my eye was The Dig. In sum, perhaps they should have buried this one with the Anglo-Saxon ship uncovered in the late 1930s, a true story on which it is based.
What The Dig is about is the finding of the incredible Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon burial in the Suffolk region of England in 1939. You may be familiar with its most famous piece, an ornate, gold in-laid mask and helmet. I have seen the real McCoy, along with its accoutrements, in British Museum and it is incredible, if you are into that sort of thing. Ever wonder how it was found? No? Well, the people at Netflix apparently did and decided to make a movie about it. Their goal was to correct what they saw as a historical error and give proper credit to the original excavator of the site, Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes). He is summoned to the estate of Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), on whose property are a series of mounds. You will notice that I referred to Basil as an “excavator,” not an archaeologist. Because this is England in the 1930s, there is still an air of stuffiness about training and status versus experience. Put differently, first the local Suffolk museum and then the prestigious British Museum each come to the site where the excavation is taking place and claim provenance over the finds. For reasons (something about a love of antiquity shared in quiet moments) a bond is formed between Edith and Basil. This is important because she stands by his work in the face of the pressures of the so-called experts. I also thought a love interest was developing, but then all of the significant gazes and pining for each other’s company went nowhere, especially when it is revealed that Basil is married and, um . . . devoted to his wife? He seems to spend more time away from home than with his wife. Underscoring the dig is Edith’s ongoing struggle with a worsening heart condition. After a visit to the doctor, she is told that she does not have much longer to live. In real life she goes on to live three more years, so the drama they set up with this seeming race to complete the work before she passes is a non-starter. For good measure, they toss in a love triangle between Edith’s cousin, Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn), and two of the archaeologists brought in by the British Museum, Stuart (Ben Chaplin) and Peggy Piggot (Lily James). Rory is there simply having a grand old time, but the marriage between Stuart and Peggy is strained. Stuart is neglectful and there is the suggestion that he is more interested in the company of men. Peggy is interested in being loved, something Stuart never seems to want to provide, though he seems a decent enough fellow if preoccupied. Anyway, Peggy finds her way into Rory’s arms by the end of the film, unsurprisingly. This is also precipitated by the outbreak of World War II and Rory finally being called up to serve in the Royal Air Force (RAF) because, oh yeah, that is going on too. The onset of war puts a halt to the treasures coming up from the ground, but they truly are stunning pieces and I recommend checking them out some time. It is better than watching the movie, anyway. Because of the conflict, they re-bury the site. The movie ends with a crawl explaining how Basil’s name had been left off the list of those credited with the work until recently.
Still, I cannot say that The Dig is Basil’s story. In fact, I do not know whose story it is. The logical assumption would be Basil because, if you watch the trailer, he is the person on which it focuses. And yet after the people from the British Museum arrive, a little less than half-way through the film, he is barely heard from the rest of the movie. Okay, then what about Edith? Well, she is in it more, but her scenes are sprinkled in randomly and are not lengthy enough to carry a plot. A typical plot structure has characters going through specific changes with a beginning, middle, and end. They start in one emotional state, are tested by the events in the middle, and come out in the end having a new perspective. This does not fit Edith, unless you count her discovering that her death is near. It actually best describes Peggy’s character arc in the film, but you do not meet her until nearly the second half of the film. She gets to the site fresh faced and newly wed, goes through the process of finding out her husband is not that into her, and ends with a new found love for Rory, who seems to genuinely appreciate her. However, these things have nothing to do with the dig other than all three principal people happen to be there at the same time. Without any true main characters, what you are left with is a meandering mess of a movie that is more like a well shot, dramatic documentary than anything else. One last criticism: there were several dialog sequences where those involved were pictured, words were being spoken, but their mouths were not moving. This is in keeping with the artsy feel of the film. It is kind of neat, if confusing, the first time you see it. But then director Simon Stone kept coming back to it and it became distracting.
One of these strange, out of phase moments of dialog in The Dig does contain one little interesting tidbit. When Edith’s son Robert (Archie Barnes) learns of his mother’s death, he rages to Basil about his inability to do anything to stop it. The two had become confidants during the excavation, and Basil is able to give the boy some sage advice. Robert thinks he is a failure, but Basil reminds him that there are some things we cannot succeed at no matter how hard we try. Thank you for this nugget, movie. We all fail. Even Jesus did, though we probably do not consider it in the same way. He was not able to convince everyone to repent and trust in God, for example, as was His message at the Sermon on the Mount. Regardless, when viewed through this context, failure is part of God’s plan. Believe me when I say this, accepting it in these terms can literally save your life. It may not necessarily be dire every time, but Basil’s words speak to finding meaning in failure. Jesus was not able to bear the weight of the Cross the entire way up to His Crucifixion. He fell three times. He got up three times. Learning from such moments turns failure into success. It may not look like how we expect going into it, but offering up these moments to God through prayer and discernment makes them glorious.
If you end up watching The Dig, I hope you find your way to this scene. It will not be easy. When I see flawed films, I tend to come up with imaginary scenarios that help me rationalize them. This one is a bit like going to a museum. There are all these items there demanding your attention. Yet if you linger too long on any one piece, you will never get through the whole collection. That works well for a museum, not so much for a film. Outside of its wandering nature, there is nothing else objectionable. There is a scene where Peggy is nude, and it is a close call in seeing some of her lady bits, but nothing is really revealed. Otherwise, it is bunch of people digging old stuff out of the ground. My interest in such things is why I watched the film. Now I would have rather have seen a real documentary about the same subject.