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.
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.
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.
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.
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!