The Dig (2021)
Director: Simon Stone
Screenwriters: Moira Buffini, John Preston
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Carey Mulligan, Lily James, Johnny Flynn, Ken Stott, Ben Chaplin, Monica Dolan
In recent months we have all had time for more introspection than usual, and we have each been faced with a seemingly endless barrage of moral conundrums and existential threats. Many of us have been forced to deeply reconsider our behaviours, and others to simply appreciate our loved ones a little more, but it seems like all of us have taken some time to analyse the effect we have on the world and re-assess the legacies we will leave should life be taken from each of us as suddenly as it has been taken from so many others. In 2021 Netflix Original The Dig, from The Daughter director Simon Stone, such existential questions are the themes around which every aspect of the film revolves, this British period drama mining a “based on true events” story for the universal qualities and fears of the human race, offering a timely existential experience set at the cusp of the world’s largest ever existential threat, World War II.
Ralph Fiennes (In Bruges; Harry Potter) and Carey Mulligan (Drive; Wildlife) star at the head of an ensemble cast that includes critically acclaimed young stars Lily James (Yesterday) and Johnny Flynn (Emma), Fiennes and Mulligan combining effectively as an excavator local to the British county of Suffolk and the woman who employs him to excavate some unusual mounds found on her land. The duo offer a distinct and believable friendship, the type of bond that is mostly unspoken but clearly of great importance, their mutual respect and appreciation central to this narrative’s purpose as an expression of how our individual actions can leave lasting communal legacies, the likes of which shape our collective future.
Fiennes is reliably transformed. Physically, his arched neck, hunched shoulders and stiff-legged walk (that has him tilt like a pendulum between steps) create the image of a man with decades of experience in his field and perhaps longer still as a person bonded with the land, while his Suffolk accent is spoken with a softness that speaks of the real Basil Brown’s apparently respectful and humble demeanour. Rarely do we see Fiennes’ Brown angry, but when we do it is manifested through a tightening of the jaw, the lighting of a pipe, and through spitting onto the ground – the latter serving as a means for the character to return to the earth that which he has taken.
The real-life Basil Brown is a barely referenced figure of the early 20th century, a point the film makes in The Dig’s traditional “based on true events” closing title cards, but Fiennes grounds this imagined version of the man in a truly believable space, the actor’s work alongside Mulligan in particular ensuring a tangible feeling of truth, albeit one closer to the human experience than the events of the time.
The Dig is a film that inherently explores the idea of death, from the excavations to the looming war, from the growing illness of Mulligan’s Edith Pretty to the existential questions it poses, yet while director Simon Stone never loses touch of the fears and anxieties that these bring to each of us, this film is not an anxiety-inducing thriller or a dark drama, it is a celebration of life.
Shot in wide lenses and making use of natural lighting where possible – the sunlight directly reflecting in the lens somewhat frequently, especially in the film’s many Golden hour shots – Stone’s work alongside Director of Photography Mike Eley evokes the work of famed existential philosopher Terrence Malick. It’s an approach that invites you to see beauty in the seemingly ordinary parts of everyday life, whether it be a cycle up an old gravel path, a walk through a grassy field or the setting of the sun, and while The Dig doesn’t feature the same existential voiceover of Malick’s work – instead grounding itself in the British tradition of meaningful and well articulated dialogue exchanges – it is edited around dialogue in such a way that words are spoken into the next shot or scene, thus illustrating how each of our words and actions can be lasting beyond our presence, and thus highlighting this drama’s Malickian analysis (and confrontation) of legacy, as well as the film’s generally positive outlook that our lives are each important in some way, and that what we leave behind will be remembered.
In The Dig, the most major finds of the excavation are produced by women (either through direction or discovery), the metaphor being that the legacies of women are only just being uncovered, their actions (large, life-changing and small) only recently coming into view, being dug up out of the archives of silenced history. It’s an important inclusion, but one that highlights the film’s larger failure to confront this historical silence and the effects this has on our understanding of our collective legacy. Legacy has forever been centred around men through their leadership of religions and countries, the ownership and inheritance of land, the writing of public records, the rights to vote, to build, and so on, yet through all of its existential thought, The Dig rarely expresses this, instead offering small moments of shallow enlightenment or reward for its women. In a film that is bookended by the shots of its male protagonist, and has a narrative centred upon how his underheard voice is now finally establishing the legacy it deserves – and uses this to express to us how our legacies might do the same – the top billing of star Carey Mulligan seems tokenistic, the real-life Edith Pretty who was originally credited with the excavation’s discoveries set aside for this more male-centred approach just as other women have been throughout our history.
In one scene, The Dig quite literally asks “if a thousand years was to be lost in an instant, what would be left of us?”. If this film were to be the only thing that still existed, then a collective of existential people appreciative of the little everyday things and the love of one another would be the answer. The Dig isn’t as deep as the holes its characters dig into the ground, nor its discoveries as monumental, and in many ways it fails to stray beyond the tight confines of a safe but respectable “based on true events” period drama, but with a softness in its presentation and a timely philosophical undertaking at its heart, there is something here to be enjoyed on a rainy afternoon and an arrangement of ideals that some may identify with.