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Like the archaeological project at the center of its story, many things seem to lie just beneath the surface in Netflix’s new historical film The Dig.
At the outset, the film is a straightforward retelling of how a wealthy widow and a blue-collar excavator made an extraordinary discovery that changed our understanding of the so-called “Dark Ages.” In an England on the brink of World War II, Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) hires amateur archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to excavate the mounds on her Suffolk estate. Once they discover an Anglo-Saxon ship buried deep beneath the earth, the credentialed authorities from the British Museum arrive to take over, then take credit for the find.
At first, it seems this is all the film will be about—the wrestling between the deserving oppressed (a woman and a man with no formal education) and the smug, entitled oppressors (the famed scholars). But as the story goes on and that conflict falls by the wayside, much deeper themes emerge. Ultimately, The Dig is a meditation on the lessons we take from history and death.
“You always told me your work isn’t about the past or even the present. It’s for the future,” Basil’s wife tells him. “So that the next generations can know where they came from. The line that joins them to their forebears.” In an age that’s blithely tossing aside the art, literature, and insights of civilizations that came before us, there’s something deeply comforting in watching Basil and Edith so painstakingly preserve even the smallest medieval artifact. But even more affecting is the film’s sense that wisdom comes from contemplating the end of life. “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:2).
So it’s a bit of a shame that The Dig, rated PG-13 for minor language and mildly suggestive scenes, ultimately wastes this gold-minted symbolism on muddy moral waters. In one case, when two characters seem about to embark on at least an emotional (if not physical) affair, we rejoice when circumstance cuts them off at the pass, relieved that a great wrong against a good woman has been averted. Later though, the film asks us to rejoice that an affection-starved newlywed makes a break from her husband for more romantic pastures.
Without a fixed standard, the story crumbles like some of the items the Suffolk team digs up, seeming solid at first before turning to sand. The charm of the first half erodes in the second thanks to relativistic ideas of what constitutes a life well lived. It prevents The Dig from having what any good archaeology-themed film should: timeless appeal.