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Film Review: The Dig (2021)

Based on the true story of the Sutton Hoo treasure, The Dig turns real-life events into a cosmic meditation of history, legacy, and life. Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes star as the widowed heiress Edith Pretty and autodidactic excavator Basil Brown respectively while Lily James and Johnny Flynn round out the cast in this archaeology-based tale set just before the beginning of World War Two. The contemplative tone of the film is echoed in the breathtakingly beautiful cinematography that captures the English country vistas bathed in natural light. An unusual bit of editing turns conversations into voiceover thoughts with lingering shots of people about to speak or in the middle of absorbing the words. It is a movie that asks for patience to wrest with grand and sombre ideas. Over the course of the 1938 dig, which turns out to be a magnificent, 6th-century, Anglo-Saxon burial site, Edith grapples with loss, death, and an impending war with Basil acting as her wise sounding board. As the older, roughened working man, Basil’s lack of formal education make him a bit of an outsider to his peers at the local museum but his obstinate focus on the excavation and his undeniable experience and knowledge endear him to Robert Pretty (Archie Barnes), Edith’s young son who loves rockets and outer space. Self-alienated at first, Basil finds kinship in Edith, who shares his interest in antiquity, respects his work and expertise, and innately understands the disappointments of life. Although a woman of means, Edith’s hides a history of sorrow and loss behind her elegant and gentle demeanour. (A house servant reveals that Edith cared for her dying father for many years, while receiving yearly marriage proposals from the late Colonel Pretty.) More than once, Edith visits her husband’s grave to faithfully grieve, alone. She also tries to hide her deteriorating health condition from Robert in order to protect him and not make a big deal about herself, in typical British fashion. Knowing that she cannot be there for her son in the future, as uncertain as it is with an upcoming war, Edith’s legacy, the film seems to say, is her place in history regarding the Sutton Hoo treasure. She shares it with Basil as well, who had a lifetime of being unrecognized for his work (and as the film reveals at the end, even until the 2000s.) There is also an inclination towards stewarding the artefacts of the past for the future as represented by the happy and hopeful Robert. Mulligan and Fiennes are absolutely the heart and soul of this movie. (It’s bit odd to see Netflix drop this movie with little fanfare in the midst of the current buzz over Mulligan’s searing performance in the revenge-fantasy Promising Young Woman.) Newcomer Barnes has a surprisingly affecting crying scene that marks him as one to watch. However, there is a superfluous wartime romance storyline between James and Flynn that adds little to the grander themes of the movie. Ratings (out of 5):

Directing: 4 Story: 3 Acting: 4.5 Dialogue: 4.5 Editing: 4 Visuals: 5 Music/Score: 4 Overall Average: 4.1


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