“Death is more universal than life; everyone dies, but not everyone lives.” A. Sachs
I’ve never been able to verify the existence of A. Sachs to know if this is a legitimate quotation, but it is one that clearly has true wisdom. In Netflix’s The Dig, directed by Simon Stone, the constant presence of death, in many forms, is what makes the realization that we are alive so important.
As the nation is preparing for the likely war with Germany, well-to-do- widow Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) hires Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), a self-taught archeological excavator to see what is in the ancient mounds on her land. Most people assume they are burial mounds dating back to the Vikings. Both Mrs. Pretty and Mr. Brown have an appreciation for discovering the ancient world in such ways. When Brown unearths the remains of a huge ship that pre-dates the Vikings, the museum authorities step in to take charge (and the credit) for what may well be the most significant archeological find in Britain. It is the remains of a burial ship, which could only have been for a great man, possibly an Anglo-Saxon king.
That is the setting in which more human dramas play out. Edith Pretty is suffering from a dangerous heart condition. Her young son, who has a wonderful imaginary life, worries about what will become of his mother. Edith’s cousin comes to help with the work, and has a mutual attraction to a married woman also part of the dig. The cousin may soon be going off to war with the RAF. Background shots often include soldiers saying long goodbyes to girlfriends or wives. Death, whether ancient or potentially near, is a constant presence throughout the film. But so too is life.
My early expectation of what this film would be was a Masterpiece version of The Detectorists. While there are aspects that fit this, The Dig is really a bit more philosophical than that. It sees a world in which death seems to be all around. In this case, it is even the focus of a massive undertaking into the distant past. In some ways actually holding something from the 6th century creates a bond with those for whom this was a part of their life and death. The question this brings to the surface is if death is the given, what does it mean to be alive—now—this moment?
The Dig is streaming on Netflix.