The Dig - film review Sutton Hoo 1939

The Dig, a movie

The Dig - movie poster Carey MulliganI don't usually write about movies, but can we talk about The Dig? It depicts the 1939 discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship burial, which dates from the Old English period. The first part of the movie is intriguing. We see the two lead characters (Edith Pretty who owned the site and Basil Brown who started the excavation) bond over their shared enthusiasm for archaeology. The movie focuses on the characters and their relationships, often at the expense of the archaeology.
Carey Mulligan's performance of Pretty is moving, but it's a lost opportunity for a middle-aged actress to shine in a lead role. In reality, Pretty was older than Brown (played by Ralph Fiennes). Per IMBD, Nicole Kidman was originally cast for the role. She's nearly the right age, but I like that casting even less. 

My main gripe, however, is Rory Lomax. [SPOILERS TO FOLLOW] The internet tells me this 'problem' originates with the novel, also titled The Dig. Lomax is the cousin of Pretty and functions as the self-appointed photographer of the excavation. He's also a love interest for young archaeologist Peggy Piggot (played by Lily James) who is working on the site with her husband. Near the end of the movie, he is called up to join the RAF. Don't bother googling to find out if he survived the war; he never existed. I wasn't surprised to find out that Lomax is a fictional addition. His character is just too convenient, and the love triangle is painfully cliché in a film that was, up until that point, understated and fairly sophisticated. 

So who did take photos at Sutton Hoo in 1939?

The principle photographers of the excavation were Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff, both teachers and enthusiastic photographers with an interest in archaeology. Their photographs and notations record the site as it was in 1939 and offer an intimate look at the day-to-day proceedings of the dig.

Did a movie that deliberately calls out history's erasure of the contributions made by one 'experienced amateur,' in turn, ignore the contributions of two other experienced amateurs in favor of a fabricated steamy affair and partial nudity?

Yes, yes, it did.

History is more original than fiction; it also stars more women over 40.

If you are interested in learning more about the real people behind the Sutton Hoo ship burial excavation, here's an informative page from the National Trust.

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