The Dig: A (mostly) True Story


THE DIG (2021)

Directed by Simon Stone

Netflix, 112 minutes PG-13





Among the drawbacks of the dwindling number of cinemas is that movies are now subject to bidding wars by competing streaming platforms. Too often, decent movies get overlooked if you don’t subscribe to the service that distributes it. Such a film is The Dig, made by Clerkenwell Films but distributed by Netflix.


It really is about a dig, an archaeological one involving the spectacular trove from Sutton Hoo in the Suffolk region of England. It came to light in 1939, quite literally on the eve of Britain’s declaration of war against Germany. There were 18 mounds on the Sutton Hoo estate of Edith Pretty (1883-1942), a widow enriched twice over from her father’s bequest and that of her husband Robert, who died in 1934. Pretty was unconventional. She gave birth to a son–also named Robert–when she was 47 and, though she had a massive estate and a house full of servants, she bristled at stuffy pretense. When offered a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire), Britain’s highest honor, she refused it.


As this story unfolds, Pretty (Carey Mulligan) hires excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to determine whether the mounds contain anything historically significant. She has a hunch about a particular mound, but Brown steers in another direction before a near tragedy steers him back to Pretty’s choice. Sure enough, Brown begins to uncover what he think is a 6th century Anglo-Saxon ship. How did it get there and why is it so complex? Prevailing wisdom held that no Dark Ages society had much to offer culturally. But what would Brown know; he’s only an excavator, not a trained archaeologist. Forget that he’s a roughhewn autodidact with more experience and publications than a lot of university-trained experts.


Word gets out about the ongoing work and a team of Cambridge scholars led by Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) arrives like a cloud of locusts to take over from Brown. Pretty stalls as long as she can–the experts must wait to see if human remains are present–but they bully themselves in and an insulted Brown pedals back to his farm and his understanding wife May (Monica Dolan). Luckily, he is convinced to come back as he’s right; it’s an Anglo-Saxon site, not Viking.


In the movie a neophyte digger named Peggy Piggott (Lily James) unearths a Merovingian coin that proves Brown’s thesis and before you know it, they are pulling gold out of the ground like so many turnips. Peggy’s story is overlaid by her disintegrating marriage to Stuart (Ben Chaplin) and her attraction to Pretty’s cousin Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn), who is about to be called up by the Royal Air Force.


Nitpickers objected that Peggy was actually highly qualified and that Lomax is an invented character. Lily James is perhaps too beautiful for the role of Peggy, but her nephew John Preston wrote the novel upon which The Dig is based, so I’ll give that a pass. It’s clearly stated from the outset that the film is adapted from a novel. Memo to Nitpickers: Novel = fiction. There are other things in the film that didn’t happen either. Edith Pretty died in 1942, not in 1939, and in a hospital, not the hollow of the Anglo-Saxon ship. Remarkably, though, most of the rest is pretty close to what actually occurred.


I suppose one might also object to liberties taken on the sentimental side of things–Peggy didn’t divorce Stuart until 1956, and young Robert is depicted overly much as an adorable and precocious 12-year-old–but the battle for control over the Sutton Hoo treasures was real and the academic community and the British Museum did indeed try to write Brown out of the story. (He wasn’t fully acknowledged until 1985.)


For whatever inaccuracies seep into The Dig, director Simon Stone knows a good story when it’s handed to him, and that actors like Mulligan, Fiennes, James, Stott, and Dolan don’t need much coaxing to give believable performances. Cinematographer Mike Ely adds lovely shots of Suffolk that capture well its sunny day/teeming rain contrasts. I wouldn’t call The Dig a masterpiece, but it does what it intended and does it well. If you can find The Dig, it’s a diverting way to spend two hours. There’s no way to exaggerate the importance of Sutton Hoo, as I discovered the several occasions I gazed upon the finds in the British Museum.  


Rob Weir


The Stranger in the Lifeboat: Would You Know a Savior?




By Mitch Albom

Sphere, 204 pages.





One of the older values clarification exercises is the lifeboat scenario. If you don’t recall it, an accident crowds too many people into a lifeboat with too few resources. If circumstances forced it, how would you choose whom to sacrifice to boost the survival chances of others?


Now let’s consider another mind game. Have you ever thought it unusual that most of the world’s major religions rely on centuries-old texts? Isn’t it odd that those that believe in a living deity assume that God has had nothing more to say to humankind in thousands of years? Here’s another dilemma. If a savior appeared today, would anyone recognize that person as such?


Mitch Albom is a Christian. Of that there is no doubt. Some people are put off by his novels as they find them proselytizing. The Stranger in the Lifeboat is, however, not entirely what you expect because it places the reader inside of both of the scenarios outlined above. Name whatever deity, prophet, or savior you wish. Once you freeze an image in your mind, can you get past whatever bearded, robed, turbaned, and/or miracle-wielding personality you invoke?


Lifeboat storylines are generally straightforward, as is this one. Jason Lambert, a ridiculously wealthy mogul, has invited a veritable who’s who from the celebrity, sports, political, and business worlds to join him in Cape Verde to schmooze, fish, and luxuriate on the maiden voyage of his super yacht Galaxy. His allegedly indestructible vessel–shades of The Titanic­–is KO’d by what is assumed to have been an enraged whale and sinks. At this juncture Albom perhaps has the Old Testament tale of Jonah and the whale in mind, but he then tosses us the first of several curveballs and unless you are very astute or very lucky you will probably whiff.


Just nine people make it to the lifeboat, some from the guest list and others from the below-decks crew meant to serve them: Lambert, an Olympic swimmer, a hairdresser, an UN ambassador, two chefs, a British media executive, a traumatized and mute small girl, and a deckhand named Benji who chronicles the fates of an ever-diminishing passenger list. As they are adrift, they pull aboard a 10th person, an unkempt man who partakes of their water and food. As panic sets in, one distraught passenger calls upon God to save them. The 10th person, the namesake stranger from the title whom no one recalls having been aboard in the first place, staggers the rest by asserting, “I am the lord.”


Would you buy it? Why would a divinity need food and water? And what’s with the odd insistence that none can be saved until all believe in him? Too much sun and not enough water? You probably wouldn’t expect a pompous jerk like Lambert to yield, but then again, he might be one of the first you’d want to offload if you were playing the lifeboat game. Or would it be the stranger? He sure sounds like his elevator doesn’t rise higher than the lobby. Would you ignore him and turn to figuring out how to jerry rig sails, fresh water collection, and fishing gear?


Is the stranger the lord? I’m saying nothing beyond a vague statement that you have a ton of surprises in store based on what I’ve not said. There were at least three things I did not anticipate, so count me among the whiffed.


Albom isn’t a great stylist, but he’s a fine storyteller. If he is preaching in this novel, it is in ways subtle enough to be called nonecumenical, even transtheistic. I think, though, that he wants us to think upon the tendency of believers of all stripes to stuff God into a box. In a sense, he is telling us that some atheists have a point when they reverse Genesis 1:27 and render it, “man created God in his own image.” Albom’s story might appear simplistic to some, but whatever faith or non-faith one embraces it’s worth asking the question: If the divine walked among us, would we know it?


Rob Weir     


The Quiet Power of The Boy in the Field



By Margot Livesay

Harper, 256 pages.





I dislike novels that try so hard to impress that only other authors and critics with affected highbrow airs are reeled in. One of the joys of Margot Livesay’s The Boy in the Field is that it’s gripping though nothing particularly earthshattering happens after the first few pages.


At its center are the three siblings of Hal and Betsy Lang: 18-year-old Matthew, 15-year-old Zoe, and 13-year-old Duncan. They live in the Cotswolds and one day the kids notice something as they are walking home. Duncan sees what appears to be a pair of red socks lying in a field by an oak tree, but they are blood-stained and attached to a young man, not a boy. They fear he might be dead, but each hears him mutter something. Was it cowrie? Cowslip? Coward?


The Langs duly report this, the victim is taken to a hospital, and Detective High Price informs them that Karel Lustig, a hospital worker, almost died but will be okay thanks to them. That’s heady stuff to digest, especially for Duncan who fantasizes possible crime scenarios only someone his age could conjure. The mystery thickens when Duncan learns that Karel had been beaten and stabbed by a driver who dumped him in the field.


Livesay deftly begins to unpeel layers of other things, including how traumas can reveal other things. After all, don’t we all have uncracked mysteries lurking within and about us? Hal is an ironsmith and Betsy a solicitor (lawyer to we Yanks) and theirs is a perfect marriage. Of course, we know that no marriage is “perfect,” so expect some revelations on that score.  


Spotting the boy in the field is also an unsettling trigger that subtly pushes each of the Lang children to forge their own identities. Matthew is about to enter university and needs to sort through his relationships with his best Benjamin, his social circle, and his various girlfriends. It’s all so overwhelming that at times he reverts to patterns more akin to the those of someone Duncan’s age than one on the verge of manhood. By contrast, Zoe grows increasingly distant from her family and wants to break out. She looks older than she is, is very smart, and holds her own in discussions with Rufus, an American Ph.D. philosophy student at Oxford. He’s a gentleman, though he finds Zoe more alluring than his girlfriend in Paris.


Duncan is affected most of all. He has trouble concentrating in school, though he’s a budding artist, and is too empathetic for his own good. It’s as if every detail he observed that day is indelibly etched in his mind. When he visits Karel in the hospital, Duncan grows even more obsessed and wants to “solve” the crime and enlists Karel’s jaded older brother Tomas in his amateur sleuthing. Duncan’s also adopted and becomes assertive in seeking his Turkish birth mother and, yes, he becomes color-conscious Yet for all the irons in various fires, Duncan is the one who makes friends the easiest.


The Boy in the Field is set in the year 2000 with a last chapter is a coda of how the Langs and the Lustigs are faring in 2008-09. Lest you think that Livesay has imposed on her characters the disruptive social transformations that were supposed to happen at midnight of January 1, 2020, let me assure that Livesay does not resort to anything that cheap. All that transpires is in keeping with their personalities and evolves organically.


How often does a writer impress you with a quiet and relatively action-free novel? For the kids, it’s a coming-of-age journey; for the adults one of dealing with good choices and bad ones. Far from penning a classic whodunit crime tale, Livesay offers penetrating overlapping character studies in which the actual resolution of the crime warrants more of a shrug than a gasp. It’s as if everyone was already on preordained paths illumined by the boy in the field. It reminded me of John Knowles’ classic A Separate Peace in that a single episode brings clarity to inner selves. This is a lovely and literary work but, lest it sound too weighty, know that a lovable dog also plays an important role.


Rob Weir