Life is a paradox. Experientially, we always stray between extremes, from the mundane to the sublime, and exultation to despair. For a true sense of perspective on the lens of that paradox, however, “The Dig” provides a simultaneously broad and intimate view of just what the paradox of existence might involve. In a curiously compelling movie about an event that you would never have expected to be given cinematic treatment, a meditation on the curiosities of life and time unfolds in concert with each layer of earth as Basil Brown’s crew comes closer and closer to their historic discovery. At the advent of a new world on the brink of WWII, the crew (and film) are paradoxically possessed by a desire to look backwards into untold centuries and make them present once again.
Perhaps the most noticeable iteration of the film’s focus on such paradoxes can be seen in the focus itself. The cinematography used in the movie is curiously simultaneously wide and extremely pointed. There is a consistent return to wide shots of nature, but frequently these wide shots are anchored tightly to a grassy foreground. Many of the shots used in the movie are confined to an extremely tight focal point, with most of the rest of the frame out of focus. The narrow focus is an interesting choice, likely mirroring the necessarily close and narrow focus required of an archaeological dig in the first place. The direction the camera takes also often plays into the paradox, honing in on the dirt and anchored in the earth while also providing dazzling sunsets and a continual interplay of light and shadow throughout the film.
The plot itself, while centering on the landmark discovery and excavation of the Sutton Hoo ship burial, dips its roots into many of the intersecting experiences of all the human lives crossing the paths of the ancient dead. It is a natural reflection on the value of looking into the past, as the world of the living testifies to its fascination with its own origins on display as the ship comes out of the earth. A power struggle ensues over rights to and recognition of the discovery; the elitist Roman and Classical focus clashes with the Northern European and Anglo-Saxon world; at the advent of a world war, a small group of researchers struggles to preserve the ancient world from the ravages of both the past and the present. Somehow, in the pursuit of this discovery, two different moments in time begin to coexist in the same plane, as the movie meditates on the perils of pursuing the dead, and why it is ultimately worthwhile.
The characters, like the ship, gradually and unassumingly come to the surface over the course of the film, until they burst unexpectedly into a few dazzling images. Not all the subplots work: one particular romantic strand is overplayed, but while there are a surprising number of simultaneous stories going on for such a (relatively) short film, instead of strangling or overcomplicating the story, they overlap to such an extent that they eventually coalesce into a kind of archaeological layer over the film itself.
“The Dig” is a slow and meditative story which seems content to sit and reflect upon its surroundings rather than to drive at a particular resolution. This is partially necessary, given its focus on paradox: in a true paradox, there is no definitive solution, but rather a simultaneous pull in opposite directions. Consequently the film lives in a sort of liminal space between old and young, close and far, antique and modern, peace and war, irrelevance and significance, private and public concerns, Suffolk and the cosmos. Immanent humanity is revealed through the lives and remains of the ancient as a culture’s mortal remains become immortalized. Perhaps in the end it best serves as a reminder; a reminder that the past was once as alive as us, and of what we ourselves may leave behind when our time comes. Humanity, just as the story, lives in multiple worlds at once, on unknown and countless layers of untold ages before. One of the final images of the film cements this idea in a beautiful scene of ancient and modern coalescing; together, from the belly of the ship, the old and the new set off into the stars.
“It’s someone’s grave.
No. It’s life revealed, and that’s why we dig”