As a kid, I was a digger. Always outside in the meadow that ran the back of my house, in the woods that huddled behind the half-circle of homes down the hill, or even in the less visited recesses of my yard, I was always looking for something “down there.” But I never found anything like the spines of the Anglo-Saxon long ship that were unearthed in the picture above.
In a post from December called Digging for a Sense of Place, I described how I didn’t really find anything you’d call “archeological” until I got to Philadelphia and came upon what might have been an 18th century kitchen dump beneath our magnolia tree out back. (My home is a block and a half from an historical marker that tells of British troops camping here before the Battle of Germantown, so I suppose the pottery shards I found there could also have been left behind when these very soldiers moved to their next encampment.) Anyway, while thinking about my relationship to the places where I’ve lived, I also saw some of the roots of my commitment to and indifference about the ravages of climate change—and how I might get that wavering to settle down into something more like steady resolve.
Because our plots of land are relative strangers to us, we don’t embrace them with the same protective bonds that draw us, to say, a child under threat. Instead, they are… little more than addresses, places to arrive at or depart from but not necessarily learn more about, even while we’re spending most of our time there.
Maybe because I’d written this post so recently, I couldn’t believe the coincidence when a British filmmaker presented his movie, called The Dig, on Netflix this week. Told with unsettling beauty, it’s a story about the quixotic excavation of an ancient burial mound on a manor estate in southeast England. With remarkable restraint, it uses its Dark Age discoveries to throw the early bombing raids over Britain during World War II (whenThe Dig takes place) into bold relief.
These bombers, like heavy, lumbering cows, crisscross the skies above the excavation site, falling down to earth on one occasion while simultaneously calling more young Englishmen up into the clouds to risk their lives. Much like them, we also need the memories of our place in the world to anchor an uncertain future. With new viral strains announced almost daily and the need to inoculate an entire planet before “normal” or “safe” can return, it still remains unnervingly unclear how any of us will come out the other end. As with the pilots and diggers of rural England in the 1940s, it might get us thinking about what we’d most like to carry with us–what we’d most like to preserve–as we too face the unknown.
This trailer for The Dig will give you the flavor of its juxtapositions on time, place, loss as well as the kind of gain that becomes possible when you seize the day.
Among many other things, this is an actors’ movie, particularly for Mulligan, Barnes and Fiennes.
Mulligan’s Edith Pretty is weighed down by the emotional and physical ailments that have increasingly burdened her since her husband, a soldier himself, died shortly after they married and their son was born. It is her estate that houses the ancient burial mounds, she’s always wondered what secrets they might hold, and perhaps because of her own dwindling, she finally resolves to find out. Mulligan’s startling performance pushes Edith to the boundaries of her fragile condition and to small bursts of vitality beyond it.
Edith finds the complement she needs “for a dig” in Basil Brown, “a self-taught excavator” who knows “everything there is to know” about the ground and soil of Suffolk since, as he takes pains to explain, his hands have been combing through it for over sixty years. A hard-working man, he learns how to find common ground with Edith across the gapping class divides of rural England in a dance of blunt and sometimes comical exchanges. Basil Brown is played by Ralph Fiennes, who has inhabited everyone from Voldermort to Jonathan Steed (the TV Avengers protagonist) and the English Patient in his years playing leading men on the big-screen. Given those marquee roles, his understated Basil is a departure.
When interviewed about it, Fiennes (himself a Suffolk native) said he spent weeks riding an old bike along the country roads of southeast England to refresh his feelings for the place and its rhythms before filming began. In other interviews The Dig’s creative force, Simon Stone, said he encouraged his actors to ad-lib the script when it felt right to them. For the character of Basil in particular, deep knowledge of the land and the freedom to be spontaneous produce a kind of honest power that is evident throughout this performance, which is the best of his that I’ve seen in his long career.
The eight (or so)-year-old actor Archie Brown plays Edith’s son Robert. A dazzling counterpoint to the mumbling Basil and his frail mother, Robert brings the fireworks of childish excitement and gushing enthusiasm to this dig for buried treasure. In their small community quest, he also discovers a father figure, awakening in Basil the best kind of paternalism when the old codger least expects it. A sequence where Robert takes off from home on his bike in search of Basil is gorgeously realized and almost unbearably sad in its desperate longing. But while the buried treasures here are frequently emotional, there are also splendid discoveries to be made as this ragtag band carves its way beneath the ground.
What The Dig’s spirited amateurs discover became known as the Sutton Hoo Treasure, stored in the buried hull of a sixth-century Anglo-Saxon ship to honor a Dark Age king. As a long-time believer in buried treasure, if I have a complaint about this movie it’s that we get to see too little of this magnificent horde—mostly as it temporarily rests on the mossy beds of wooden crates that are placed, one after another, under Edith’s bed, near a suitcase that had been her husband’s.
She ultimately gives the Sutton Hoo Treasure to the British Museum despite sniveling among the “professional” archeologists and museum curators that provide the film’s suspense (“What will become of this magical discovery at a time when we all need to feel the joy of it?”) Representing an almost entirely unknown chapter of the nation’s memory, there is never really any doubt where it’s headed. The Sutton Hoo Treasure will go to the place where the greatest number of Edith’s and Basil’s countrymen and women can gather around its campfire and face whatever tomorrow holds together.
Well into The Dig, Basil’s bedrock of a wife wonders at his conviction and tenacity, over “just how he is,” not really asking as much as telling him: “Why else would you be playing around in the dirt while the rest of the country prepares for war?”
So it’s fitting that his and Edith’s quiet obsessions play out not in a “post-card pretty England” but in more of a dreamscape of grays and ochers during the day or in a nightmare when it’s dark and raining and Basil is trying to pull reluctant tarps over the excavation site despite being blinded by the spattering mud. What’s at stake here is not the rose-colored surfaces of England’s countryside but what supports that splendor underneath: its long buried past and the quiet furnaces that animate the men and women who have lived for centuries “closest to its ground.”
In an echo of the Anglo-Saxon ship that’s being unearthed, my favorite scene in the movie is of a contemporary sailboat drifting along the same nearby river that carried the burial chamber of an ancient king to what might have been his final resting place 1500 years before. It was like a message-in-a-bottle or maybe a promise of things to come. Like Basil for a moment, I could almost hear the past reverberating into the present and maybe even the future.
When you see The Dig, you’ll know what I mean about “how Basil is,” the silent quest that drives Edith, and how valuable spirit voices like theirs might be in each of us too as we worry and wonder about what’s worth preserving in our fragile world today so we can take it into the future.
This post was adapted from my February 7, 2021 newsletter. Newsletters are delivered to subscribers’ in-boxes every Sunday morning and occasionally I post the content from one of them here. You can subscribe too by leaving your email address in the column to the right.