The Dig (2021)

28

I spent a lot of time wandering around the British countryside in my younger days, daydreaming about the history that lay buried under those expansive Suffolk skies, so when The Dig (2021) was released, I was — pardon the boat pun — on board. Yes, I read the articles that came out in advance of the film that criticized its treatment of the factual history of the discovery of the Sutton Hoo hoard: Everything from the fact that Carey Mulligan was cast to play the lead female role and is substantially younger in real life than the woman she is portraying, to the cries of female erasure when a pair of women photographers were written out of the script to devote time to a completely fictional love story between an invented (male) photographer and one of the only other women involved with the excavation. So, I understood that there were a lot of expectations already let down by the time I sat down to watch it.

2021 The Dig

I’ve been reviewing historical films for a long time, folx, and maybe I’m going soft in my old age, but inaccuracies like this bother me less and less as the years wear on, especially when the story that the film is telling gets the high points right. My line in the historical sand has apparently shifted to incorporate some wiggle room with the facts, so long as the resulting film doesn’t waste my time or insult my intelligence (which is why I will be forever snarky about The Tudors, and any and all Philippa-Fucking-Gregory adaptations). In The Dig, I felt that the changes to the characters and the tinkering with the historical timeline in no way detracted from the overarching story of one of Britain’s most famous archeological discoveries. I think I fell somewhere in line with the feeling shared by the host of British History Podcast Jamie Jeffers, in his interview with Forbes:

“Sitting down to watch The Dig, I had a list of things that I wanted to see in the film,” he said. “I wanted references to the rain [that hampered the excavation efforts], the shadow of war, the rescue nature of the dig, the problem of rabbits [which can damage or destroy buried goods and make dig conditions hazardous], how class issues affected the dig, and many other things. And in the first 20 minutes, the film ticked most of the boxes I was looking for.

While the exclusion of female characters in the film to make way for the inclusion of a mostly unnecessary but not totally pointless romance does rankle, it’s par for the course. Not every historical detail is going to make it into a film.

2021 The Dig

Yeah, this didn’t happen.

As for casting Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty, the owner of the land on which the great burial ship was situated, well, it turned out to be a non-issue once the film got rolling. Mulligan actually looked aged up far more than her actual 35 years, so at least she didn’t look egregiously young and Hollywood beautiful. Again, I’m not fussed about it, because honestly, Mulligan was excellent in the role. And of course Ralph Fiennes is fantastic no matter what he’s doing on film — including playing the role of Basil Brown, the man hired by Edith to excavate the burial mounds. The point to all of this is that we can be very cynical about the casting and the scripting of the film, but overall, I think the criticism is unwarranted.

2021 The Dig

It’s England, so of course it’s wet and muddy.

 

2021 The Dig

Monica Dolan plays Basil’s wife, May. These two had lovely chemistry, and I really enjoyed every scene they were in together.

The costumes were designed by Alice Babidge, and they look spot on, but they are also very utilitarian; lots of linens and tweeds, and dirt covered everything. There are a couple of evening gowns worn by Carey Mulligan that are briefly shown, and the most interesting thing about them is that they are clearly elegant and expensive, but they’re also 10 years out of date. This is a subtle visual cue that despite all of her apparent wealth, Edith is actually rather poor. Her stately home is run on a skeleton crew, her child doesn’t have any governess or tutor to supervise him around the estate, her own clothes are tasteful but a bit threadbare. A lot more is going on under the surface than meets the eye, which is a fitting analogy for a film about buried Anglo-Saxon treasure.

2021 The Dig

The threadbare hat that Edith wears on a trip to a specialist in London who can hopefully give her answers about her illness.

 

2021 The Dig

I desperately wish this gown was more visible in the film. Unfortunately, you only see it in the reflection and at a distance.

 

2021 The Dig

I did love the “pool of light” earrings that Edith wore with the evening gown, though. Pool of light jewelry was incredibly popular in the 1920s.

 

2021 The Dig

Another dress that I wish we could have seen more of. Edith wears this during the fete to celebrate the excavation of the hoard. The silhouette of the gown that is visible under the jacket looks very 1920s, but it’s hard to say for sure.

 

2021 The Dig

I really want to know the story behind the rocket ship jumper worn by Archie Barnes, who plays Edith’s son Robert, and also how I can get said jumper. Also, this kid is ridiculously adorable in general, providing a bit of levity and comedic relief throughout the film.

Ultimately, my take on this film is that it’s a love story to the Suffolk countryside, does a decent job conveying the historical significance of the Sutton Hoo find, and tells an entertaining story about characters set in the backdrop of England on the brink of war without sacrificing too much of any one element. I thoroughly enjoyed it and will watch it more than once, which is more than I can say for the vast majority of films I review for this site.

 

 

Have you seen The Dig? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!

 

Tags

About the author

Sarah Lorraine

Sarah has an undergraduate degree in Clothing & Textile Design and a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture, with an emphasis on fashion history. When she’s not caught in paralyzing existential dread, she's drinking craft cocktails and writing about historical costume in film and television. She's been pissing people off on the internet since 1995.

28 Responses

  1. Viola

    It’s not a period drama, but if you haven’t seen it you might enjoy the very lovely series ‘Detectorists’, starring Toby Jones and Mackenzie Crook as people who go metal detecting as a hobby. It has a gorgeous soundtrack and cinematography, and a real sweetness without sentimentality.

    Reply
    • Elise

      Thirded! Phenomenal, funny, gentle, wonderful. Perfect pandemic viewing.

      AND, there is some Anglo-Saxon flashback in season 3, so totally counts as a frock flick.

      Reply
  2. Roxana

    I really hate the Invented Romance trope myself. But movie makers seem to think it’s necessary.

    Reply
    • Bea

      didn’t you know?!??!?
      “Women won’t go to see a movie unless it’s got mushy stuff in it.”
      rolls eyes

      Reply
    • Saraquill

      If there must be a romance, why does it have to be a seeming hetero couple falling in love? I’m all for queer romance, a Gomez and Morticia style marriage, or a queer Gomez and Morticia style marriage. Nothing more romantic than still being deep in love after many years.

      Reply
      • Laura Powell

        Actually, if you watch the film, there is a homosexual romance (husband of the woman in made-up love story with another chap on the dig). Does that tick your box?

        Reply
  3. Susan Pola Staples

    I completely agree with your assessment. And I actually liked Carey Mulligan in her role.

    Reply
  4. JuanaBlanca

    I think Carey Mulligan did a wonderful job, but I do feel it’s a bummer for actresses who are actually the right age to play the real Edith. The romance between Rory and Peggy seemed shoehorned in to me, although the actors were both great.

    Reply
  5. Gail

    A movie about the discovery of a treasure taught in Art History 101? Yes! and they showed it with all the dirt and muck …. and what the objects looked like when discovered. Not made clean and pretty. Class conflict, a looming war, respect for the burial …. so glad it was a British production. I don’t want to imagine what a Hollywood production would look like. I just wished the end credits told the average viewer more about the Sutton Hoo treasure. A re-watch will be occuring.

    Reply
  6. Kelly

    Thanks for the info about pools of light jewelry–I’d never heard of it, and now I want some!
    A lovely film, but I wish they’d shown more of the buried pieces–muddy is fine, but we didn’t learn very much about the treasure. The one thing they mentioned by name–a Merovingian something-or-other–was breezed past with an “As you know, Bob,” kind of delivery. Give us more to learn!

    Reply
    • Laura Powell

      Merovingian Tremessis and yes, that annoyed me tremendously (OK, I’m an archaeologist so maybe I’m on a bandwagon). This film about the major find had zero artefacts shown!!

      Reply
  7. susan l eiffert

    Because I’m old but not quite THAT old, I remember vaguely those wonderful pictorial sweaters (jumpers). His certainly has gotten a lot of attention and rightly so. I wonder if his is a period one otherwise WTH did they manage to get it made? A few years ago I found a Davy Crocket one which sold promptly.
    And I agree with Kelly that it would have been nice to focus more on the history of the Anglo Saxons that had settled Sutton Hoo, and the treasures. Having said that, it was extremely well acted, especially Mulligan and Fiennes who disappeared into their parts, and the story was gently told.

    Reply
  8. Melanie R. Clark

    I agree that the romance was mostly unnecessary, but at least it’s a little bit based on Peggy Piggott’s life. In the ’50s, after her marriage to Stuart Piggott really did break down (no documented evidence of homosexuality on his part), she did fall in love with and marry someone she met while doing archeological research–only it was in Italy and her second husband was Italian.

    Reply
  9. Melanie

    Also, Nicole Kidman originally had the role of Mrs. Pretty but had to drop out. So possibly they had limited time to make the decision to cast Carey Mulligan?

    Reply
  10. Lily Lotus Rose

    No, I haven’t seen it yet, but I have been interested ever since learning of it. I think Ralph Fiennes is the one of the handsome/sexy/beautiful men in the world, and I’m always amazed how he can make himself look homely for a role when it requires it. I mean, not all archeologists look like Indiana Jones. ;) Aside from one incredibly good-looking and extremely talented actor, the story itself looks very intriguing. We’re on schedule to have a very grey, cold, and windy weekend ahead–so that might be just the push I need to finally watch this British film! Also, I agree with the other respondents that Dectorists is a really fun watch, and it features WCW alum Rachael Stirling in a great role.

    Reply
  11. LadySlipper

    I very much enjoyed The Dig. I loved the attention to detail. I wish the actress who played Edith Pretty was in her 50’s — it wasn’t a deal breaker either (mostly because Carey Milligan was superb). I loved how Ralph Fiennes went out of his way to nail the Suffolk accent, it’s definitely not one you hear a lot.

    The movie touched on so many points, classism, sexism, the impending war, and romance. My favourite romance was actually between Edith, Basil, and the site. So sweet and endearing and had some nice tension in it.

    The attention to detail was ever so evident (I cannot emphasize that enough) and I appreciate that kind of care going into a film/show/anything. ❤️

    Reply
  12. Saraquill

    I’m still wrapping my head around the fact this film takes place in the UK. I’ve lived in Boston for seven years. I keep expecting this to be about the 14+ year construction project known as the Big Dig.

    Reply
  13. Orian Hutton

    I have been recommending this film to all and sundry and will, myself, revisit it for the way in which it loved the characters, the countryside and the core story. This film helps to celebrate probably the best piece of British archaeological digging of the 20th century. I only wish that Basil Brown’s amazing feat had been even more lauded. I appreciated the subtly of most of the story telling and the handling of the growing shadow of the approaching war. The fictional love story added nothing for me and seemed unnecessary, but it didn’t particularly get in the way either or distract much from the real story. Thank you for pointing out the subtle clues of limited funds in Mrs Pretty’s clothing; next time I will watch with a clearer eye.

    Reply
  14. eldalorien

    I literally watched this film last night, and thought, “I wonder if they’re going to talk about this on frock flicks?” I also covet that rocket ship jumper, and I will never not be salty that Ralph Fiennes is only an “academy award nominee” in the year 2021. I am FOREVER bitter that he didn’t win for Schindler’s List.

    Reply
    • LadySlippers

      I’ll be bitter right along with you. Fiennes performance was so good, I was terrified of him until I saw him in an interview. Then I was in complete AWE. That performance is simply one of the best (and I do mean THE best) of all time.

      Reply
  15. Keira

    Unpopular opinion: people who act like romance is not a valid subplot for a female character are sexist. The sole reason people act like romance is degrading is because romance is the one genre women have traditionally ruled. If romance was a traditionally masculine genre no one would be acting like a romantic subplot for a female character is somehow wrong or embarrassing or bad.

    The sole reason people are anti-romance is because romance is traditionally female and people really hate women, whether they seem to know this or not.

    Reply

Feel the love

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.