The Dig: Soil, Rocks, and Stars




Netflix's The Dig excavates more than an Anglo-Saxon ship; it holds before us the latent, liminal line between life and death, a little like the Fates of Greek mythology.


Death, here, is lived. It is experienced through the deaths of fathers, husbands, and pilots; death's possibility also hangs in the air, as bombs threaten to fall from the sky. So much death surrounds Sutton Hoo, emanating forth from its beating heart, the burial site. Even Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) cannot escape the pervasive stench: We die. We die. We die. And yet, time is span as a thread connecting the present to the past (and the present to the future), in some torturous way. The remnants of life - the artefacts of the everyday - linger on. In one scene where Peggy (Lily James) and Rory (Johnny Flynn) drink coffee over a snapping fire, he asks her "If a thousand years passed in an instant, what would be left of us?" She replies "this" holding an old coin, "and parts of your watch. Torch. Fragments of the mug." Considering this, Rory replies "But every last scrap of you and I would... disappear." Life is, according to Pretty, "fleeting". She wistfully opines that "it has moments you should seize." Indeed, those moments are seized throughout the entirety of the film. It is seized by kisses, cake, naming, gifting, impromptu bike rides to uphold promises, throwing oneself into tidal currents, and, most singularly, it is seized through the determination to bring the past to life. Basil Brown's (Ralph Fiennes) commitment to excavating the ship, borne by his subtly effusive passion for soil, rocks and stars, sparkles against the backdrop of the uncertainty of war. There are some things which more delicately preserve and restore humanity than focussed attempts at biological survival. "Why else," as May (Brown) reminds her husband, "would the lot of you be playing in the dirt while the rest of the country prepares for war?" Hands scrambling into the soil, breaking up clods of earth, exposing burial sites and treasures - this is where life is nurtured. An old ship, once a marked place of honour, perhaps even of weeping, now serves as a sign to the vibrancy of lives lived during a seemingly 'dark' time. Time. It is only with the passing of time that we are able to excavate the past. It is the progression of time that lends a look back, but it's only ever a glance. May earlier says to Basil, "You always told me your work isn't about the past or even the present. It's for the future. So that the next generations can know where they came from. The line that joins them to their forebears." We are all links to an ongoing daisy chain and, in that sense, part of one continual now, united through time in life and death. But what does that leave us with? What becomes of us? Our lives are but a faint whisper carried on by a weak gust of wind. Some whispers will be blown further than others, while the droplets of most will immediately evaporate along with our death rattle. To riff off of Shakespeare: fragility, thy name is humanity. There is, however, an inescapable sense that this impermanence will give way to more; to more than ships, to more even than the constancy of the stars themselves. It gives way to that which hums throughout The Dig as a finely woven subtext, the fibres of the thread itself - love. Love absent, denied, failed, and fulfilled. These are the vibrations moving each of these lives, even our own.


It is love that connects us. It could even resurrect us.