Edith Pretty is dying. She has cancer. The historic excavation of Sutton Hoo does not come as an astonishing delight for her. Edith’s face has been worn down with jadedness, grief for her dead husband, grief for her oncoming death, and worry for her little son’s future. We also suspect a hint of jealousy for Basil Brown, and a flash of resentment towards her father, who refused to let Edith study archaeology at the University of London, forever shutting down what could have been an amazing career, and signing her off to a lifetime of homemaker-y instead.
Basil Brown: From the first human handprint on a cave wall, we’re part of something continuous. So, we… don’t really die.
Basil Brown is a working-class excavator. He has a rough accent, rugged hands and his face and clothes seem perpetually covered with dirt. He has an impressive knowledge of archaeology, but he is modest and has gone his whole life without accolades and fans. Basil taught himself to excavate. His father, he recalls, handed him a shovel and made him dig ever since he was old enough to hold one. Digging up the ground and finding buried lost objects are all he has ever known. That, and astronomy.
Thus these two souls, from different sides of society but who have known hardship all their life, come together to excavate the Sutton Hoo mound in Edith’s plot of land. With a team of excavators and archaeologists, Basil and Edith found precious stones, jewelry, cups, helmets, and remnants of the ancient ship of Sutton Hoo. This forever altered the way the world saw Anglo-Saxons. The Anglo-Saxons were a cultural group that arrived in 5th century England from Nordic countries like Denmark and Norway via the the North Sea, and later spread to the rest of Europe. Commonly known by the British public as “uncivilized”, “uncultured” and “savage marauders”, these people were actually sophisticated and learned. They had art and culture, refined techniques of smelting, carving, and jewelry-making, and a civilization.
‘The Dig’ is a deep, meditative film that ruminates on memories, inheritance, humanity, and the fleetingness of life. Even when bemoaning his sidelining at work, screenwriter Moira Buffini manages to make Basil Brown speak almost philosophically about his current condition. Basil complains to his wife, “Mark my words, May. I won’t receive any credit. I won’t even be a footnote.” This could mean he would be a footnote in the papers discussing the landmark discovery. But Basil also fears that he will be treated like a footnote throughout his career no matter how hard he works. This is because he never received formal education but gained experience while working on site, a less conventional or glamorous path for an excavator.
Death and living your life
It is hinted that Edith’s husband was killed in the First World War, and now the Second World War is looming. Things don’t look good. History is bound to repeat itself. As people dig the ground, they are occasionally interrupted by the wailing noises of the British RAF planes zooming to the frontline of the war. Even as these workers try digging up remains of the long-dead in the ground, the noise in the sky is reminding them of more death to come. Such is the irony, and the film expertly weaves the various historical events (the Anglo-Saxons, the First World War, the Second World War) into one another, almost giving an extra layer of depth in an otherwise simple story of the British discovering an ancient culture. The Germans have begun bombing London. The archaeological site and the British Museum (which plans to house the finds) are in danger of being damaged. So, Edith is quick to negotiate for the objects to be put in her relatively safe home instead, preserved in leaves in a box under her bed. Edith has seen much loss in her life and is not going to let this one go.
The excavation comes as a revelation for Edith Pretty when she realizes that life is fleeting and one day, very soon, she will die and be buried. Years later, people will forget her until one day her remains will be found. But by then, her name will be forgotten. At one point, Edith is in the car with Basil Brown and the reality of the shortness of life breaks her down. At this moment, she feels lost, alone and helpless in a world that is filled with chaos. Who will remember her? Will anything she has done even matter? “We die and we decay,” she wipes her tears. The oddly-wise Basil reassures her with gentleness and sympathy: “We’re part of something continuous. So, we… don’t really die.” Her aiding in the excavation has shaped how we see the Anglo Saxons. Her influence, as does Mr. Basil’s, lives on in her relatives and people she has interacted with. And if she influences nothing, who is to judge? Nobody is keeping score. What matters is love, company, and happiness. After the ancient objects are put safely away, the dying Edith spends the rest of her days with her son. In a heartbreaking scene, we see her and her son put up a tent and sleep in the remnants of the ancient ship, looking up at the night sky, pointing at stars.
Another notable subplot in “The Dig” is that of the young lovers. Peggy Pigott (Lily James) is a bookish and awkward young archaeologist who has been hired to excavate the ground, not for her talent, but her lightweight that will enable her to dig the ship without falling through. She faces subtle patronizing and sexism from her colleagues, especially her boss. Peggy is in a loveless marriage with co-digger Stuart who seems to be paying more attention to his other colleague. Enter Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn), Edith Pretty’s cousin. Young, handsome, and a keen photographer, Rory essentially photographs the diggers on the field for records. These photos immortalize the otherwise faceless ‘nobodies’ who are a part of such a history-altering event. Chemistry is sparking between Peggy and Rory. But the digging comes to an end and they are bound to part ways. Once the British government declares for every young fit male in Britain to join forces for the war, Rory prepares to join the Air Force. It is heartbreaking not only to Peggy but to his cousin. Edith knows that the mortality rate for pilots during the War is no joke. The planes are manufactured hastily and malfunction; there is a possibility he will not survive, and after Edith dies of cancer, there will truly be nobody for her son. But it is Rory’s choice what he does, and he chooses to fight for his nation.
Peggy learns this and resigns herself to fate. Guess it was never meant to be. She goes upstairs and sees Rory’s photographs sprawled on her bed. Black and white photos of her, Mr. Basil, Edith, and her household, the entire digging team smile back at her. The black and white make the photos look even older. She was smiling so hopefully in those photos, she looked so young and yet to fall in love with Rory. Was this really just last month? It feels so long ago. As the pieces of these memories lie arranged on her bed, Peggy sees the bigger picture of her life and realizes the same thing as Edith: life is fleeting. She can no longer pretend her marriage with Stuart is working. She will probably never find a love like Rory. Peggy runs into the arms of Rory. Both know that Rory might not survive the war, but they must seize every moment they have got. So she runs into the arms of Rory and the couple reunites. Rory knows he might not survive the war, but they must seize every moment they have got.
And thus, the beautiful and heartbreaking film ends on this note. There is hope and an affirmation of love and humanity. I wish there were more discussions around history and the way we perceive it, preservation, memory and so on. The history nerds would relish each dialogue. But otherwise, this film is great and I recommend it to everyone of every age.