The Dig (2021) | Film Review
“Prithee, please.” The archaeologist bids to the butler.
Except, in spite of being set in the appropriate era for cant, “prithee” is not the word of usage. The Suffolk twang that Fiennes uses may sound as such, even if only to avid linguists or word nerds like myself.
However, the enunciation is that of a name. One profoundly familiar, in comparison to an obsolescent synonym for “please”.
Edith Pretty, played by Carey Mulligan, may have lived up to her marital surname in days of yore. Now, her features have become wizened. It is not just her ‘poorly’ condition plucking petals from this wilting rose.
Symmetrically, reflecting an estate from which the land is vast. Teeming with (literal) secrets buried beneath. The soil is rich with antiquity dating back an odd fourteen centuries. The point of interest being of Anglo-Saxon origin.
A few mounds of dirt pave an introduction for Basil Brown, a provincial archaeologist with informal training who is hired by Pretty to unearth these skeletons.
Over the story’s progression, we see a steady regression of Pretty’s mental and physical state, beset by illness that emphasises the overall theme of mortality.
The Dig addresses the age-old adage of transience. A fairly bleak truth of life that is countered favourably by the uplifting revelation of preservation.
Even with the intervention of a hard-nosed conservator, his and everyone else’s involvement in the effort is a collective contribution of history, a tool that precedes the shovel, trowel, brush and bucket in the purpose of delivering lost life unto revival.
We cannot hope to restore that which was once living, but it is the materials left behind, bearing sentimental value or general proximity, that perpetuate the presence.
The only bodies of which are notably unique in exemption from the symptoms of arrant decay.
While they, too, are victims of decomposition, the extent at which they vanish permanently, wasted away, yet recycled to the loam they are buried beneath, is almost void.
It helps that (inanimate) objects aren’t comprised of cells. Henceforth, not subject to death. The concept of finiteness eludes them, as they, unlike the living, can be repaired or replaced.
From the lens of philosophy, we might affirm that life is replaceable by nature of regeneration. But, a life can never be replaced when its owner is unique. A child can never replace their mother. While inheriting the same geno- and phenotype, there are clear differences. Not only in physicality, but overall identity.
Even if the mother had an identical twin, even if the mother was cloned as a carbon copy, transferring consciousness with an impressive, unprecedented degree of exactitude, such that not even the keenest of human or machine could offer discerning distinction, they would not be a replacement. Only a pale impression.
Not even objects could be replaced when regarding authenticity. The original is a class of its own. Irreplaceable.
What was certain, however, was that objects could be repaired. Compared to life, which was irreparable. Resurrection was reserved for Jesus alone and no account of humans throughout history claiming to have experienced death was to be trusted.
At best, the experience was only near. Incomplete and unreliable, perhaps, due to uncertainty of the human psyche. Hallucinations or delusions of any kind weren’t solid testimonies in the court of reality.
The Dig is a metaphorical dig into the unconscious mind. Edith Pretty is coming to terms with terminal illness. A sickness that will leave her only son orphaned, as her husband also preceded with an early grave.
While the diegesis traces its steps to historical account, the emotional footprint, separate from clinical study of a Viking ship from the Dark Ages, is a prominent brow of poignant expression.
Basil’s progressive digging of a sunken ship mirrors Pretty’s declining health. This is to symbolise and pronounce the theme of archaeology in relation to death.
Exhuming the dead is given new meaning through archaic study of objects left behind by organic causes. Like shipwrecks, submerged underwater due to nature of tides displacing land to sea, land erosion and centuries of nature renovating geography result in things like an abandoned ship being buried beneath dirt.
Its wooden skeleton is not the only significant find. Other materials, approximately 1400 years of age, denoting the confirmation of dating back to the beginning of the Middle Ages, were marveled upon inspection.
As they should be, considering it to be remarkable for such construction to withstand the test of time for such sheer duration without inorganic methods of preservation.
Through palaeontology, we know that bones are often the only aspect of corporality that remain intact, yet the composition is still tangibly brittle. Upon brushing away the soil that encrusts it with a protective layer, even the slightest pinch could cause the entire structure to crumble.
As a dubious measure of security, Charles W. Phillips presents as an awkward wrench in the pail. A misplaced tool for the job.
Phillips is a curator who, as custom to big business, is unconcerned with the fact of Pretty’s claim of authority to Basil’s discovery.
Phillips is keen on transferring the artefacts to a museum, but Pretty doesn’t approve, leading her to deny his attempts to seize possession.
Among his crew is a man under the name of Stuart Piggott.
When conversing with Peggy, Stuart Piggott’s wife, about her role in the excavation, he retorts:
“Thank God, Piggott didn’t marry a piglet.”
The ship is delicate and Peggy, being a petite woman, is granted assistance on the basis of being a lightweight.
Among a plethora of other innuendos scattered throughout the film’s duration, the most salient is capitalised by perpetual misunderstanding.
Death will always be misunderstood.
It is faceless.
When dug up, the visage is indistinguishable from others of its kind. A skull of slightly varying shape but uniform features.
The soul which it housed, since drifting away to an arcane place, unseen and unfelt by the living.
Fragments of it, light dustings across picture frames and jewellery, are our only souvenirs.
Once brushed or whistled away, they too drift and disperse, not quite returning to spiritual essence.
Still remaining, resigned to stasis, congregating at a later date, to cure a prolonged epoch of neglect.
In a way, Pretty is moored to this ship.
Her health declines as the ship is progressively restored back onto the surface.
It was an error in human conception.
Life preceded Death, but Death was a solo dance.
Uncovering a sunken ship was an abrupt intervention, disrupting the perfect practice of a danse macabre.
An introduction of two left feet, overstepping the dwindling sands of time through a clock’s sedated chime.