As Britain prepares for war, self-made archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) sits on his knees in English soil, digging on behalf of landowner Edith Pretty (Cary Mulligan). On her land outside Ipswich are grassy mounds that she and Basil Brown suspect are burial mounds.
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As representatives of the local museum mock them, they begin excavations of what turned out to be one of the most important Anglo-Saxon remains discovered to date. For a medieval cemetery, the Sutton Hoo actually existed and was in use from about 600 to 1050 AD. It is unique in that it has provided researchers with answers to many questions about the Anglo-Saxon period that are lacking in previous documents.
Credit goes to “real” archaeologists
But the danger is not only World War II. Edith Pretty is dying and wants to make sure the excavation is still alive. She herself is the widow of a major who left her with her nine-year-old son Robert (Archie Barnes), and with the help of archeology, tries to deal with the transience of life.
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“We dig to meet the dead,” she told Basil Brown, just as much to herself. The archaeologist, in turn, digs deeper and deeper as the pile of unread messages from his wife grows. During a work day, he gets a pile of dirt on top of him and suffocates to death, but he continues his mission with enthusiasm as if nothing had happened.
When Basil Brown found the so-called shipwreck, suddenly the Ipswich Museum and the British Museum became interested and sent “real” archaeologists to manage and honor. But it was Edith Pretty who decided to allow Basil Brown to continue working on the team.
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Also in attendance was her cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn), who while waiting to be called up to the Air Force, equips herself with a camera to document the action. It also becomes a physical symbol of everyday life as if it were your last day, as only a few young and inexperienced war pilots survive the war.
From Voldemort to a humble archaeologist
Personally, I’m moderately interested in archeology, but in the same way that the TV series ‘The Queen’s gambit’ last year managed to get me to start looking for different chess moves on Google, my hand clapped when British Museum archaeologist Peggy Piggett (Lily James )) Finds the first piece of what turned out to be a treasure of gold.
“The Dig” is based on the novel of the same name from 2007, written by John Preston – by the way, Peggie’s nephew. The story was well edited into a movie script by Moira Bovigny who had previously done dramatic work for Jane Eyre (2011), among others.
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Sometimes the lines are poetic on the verge of banality, but when words are in Basil Brown’s mouth, I buy into the romantic thinking that says archeology is about knowing future generations of their roots. The fact that the same actor has previously played Harry Potter’s evil foe Voldemort makes the humble archaeologist seem more sympathetic. The interaction between Carrie Mulligan, who has previously appeared in films such as “Education” and “The Great Gatsby”, and Ashy Barnes is in addition to the script that carries the film.
Coupled with cinematographer Mike Ely’s play of wide angle, depth of field and shadows, it’s hard not to be tempted by this retro backlit drama.
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