Look Away Now

If you’ve not already seen the film ‘The Dig’ (currently available on Netflix) and would like to come to it fresh and with an open mind, then don’t read on.

Views of the River Alde were used in the film although the actual ship burial was overlooking the River Deben.

Where to begin? The disciplines of archaeology and history are concerned with the substance and interpretation of the past, but interpretation of our past is not the preserve of the academic. This stuff, this substance of the past, provides material for the work of writers, artists and filmmakers to make their own reinterpretations as they create offerings that enrich our lives and entertain us.

However, there is a confidence bordering on audaciousness in taking past events, particularly people’s lives, and re-presenting them in a manner that distinctly departs from the factual, historical record. The question is how far does an interpreter go with invention to bring a history to life? Does it really matter if a film, that in no way suggests itself as documentary, changes the maturity and physicality of a central character. This is the primary difficulty for me with the film, ‘The Dig’. It is a film that retells the discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship burial by Basil Brown and his working relationship with the landowner, Edith Pretty, who commissioned his excavations.

Portrait of Mrs Pretty painted in 1939 and newspaper clipping showing Mr Brown in 1939.

‘The Dig’ has made no claims for historical accuracy and itself is a film drama based on a historical novel (‘The Dig’, John Preston, 2007) which itself is a dramatised retelling of the actual events of the discovery of the ship burial in 1939. For example, in the novel a fictionalised RAF officer, Rory Lomax, photographs the dig replacing the original amateur photographers Barbara Wagstaff and Mercie Lack, who were two visiting school teachers on holiday in the Woodbridge area during the excavations of September 1939.

Literary licence is sanctioned in historical fiction to bring a story to life and when a book is made into a film that licence is often expanded to accommodate other constraints such as, let’s say, a film’s marketability. The long held view from the film industry seems to be that for commercial success well-known stars are required. The brilliant casting of Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown (with the best Suffolk accent I’ve ever heard from a screen actor) is met with the odd casting of Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty.

Portrait of Edith Pretty painted in 1939. Still shot of Carey Mulligan playing Edith Pretty in ‘The Dig’, 2021.

My response to the whole film is coloured by this choice. Casting Carey Mulligan (35 years old) as Edith Pretty (56 years old and unwell at the time of the excavations) was possibly a choice for marketability at the expense of any vague nod to the lives of the real people in this historical drama. The sidelining of twenty years of a woman’s life and experience is seemingly of no consequence. In fact this woman, Edith Pretty, had had an unusual life for her class and times; she had travelled extensively, married late at 43 years old and had her only son, Robert, at 47 years old. However, this (dialogue below) is how her full and colourful backstory is summarised in the film. Using one scene Mrs Lyons (the housekeeper and cook), describes Mrs Pretty’s life for the benefit of Mr Brown:

She’s only been here 12 year. Came down from Cheshire. Then she married the Colonel. He first met with Edith when she was still at school. And then on her 17th birthday he asked her to marry him. She turn him down. She say she can’t possibly leave her father. She care for her father another 13 year, until he died. She finally accepted the Colonel’s proposal. He’d been asking every year on her birthday. Just after they had Robert her husband went and died too. Imagine that.

Mrs Lyons, Cook & Housekeeper. Film ‘The Dig’, 2021.

During the course of the film there were also a couple of scenes where Edith Pretty experiences episodes of illness and a trip to a London physician for her to receive a diagnosis of serious heart disease. The film gave no indication of her previous adventurous life at all and sadly, all the melancholic staring across the Suffolk landscape together with make-up to both age and make Ms Mulligan look poorly, still did not make her interpretation a believable Edith Pretty. Perhaps actors such as Saskia Reeves (59), Helen McCrory (52) or Tamsin Greig (54) could have brought some depth and drive to the role of Edith. This was after all a woman who had visited excavations in the Nile Valley, served with the French Red Cross at Vitry le Francois in 1917, became one of the first women magistrates and turned down a marriage proposal over 25 times.

Modern times and the River Deben not far from the Sutton Hoo ship burial site.

If filmmakers are going to paint a watercolour of a central character rather than give us the oil painting and thus alter the dynamics at the centre of a story why not just make a different film. This film is based on the discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship burial where the word ‘based’ is doing the heavy lifting, particularly where the female characters are concerned.

Still from ‘The Dig’ showing Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown watching Thames Barge Cygnet from Snape on the marshy waterways of the River Alde.

The best part of the film was the gorgeous shots of Suffolk’s coastal waterways. The most surprising and unexpectedly disappointing aspect of the film was there was no grand reveal at the very end showing the treasure found on the Anglo-Saxon boat which is now on display at the British Museum thanks to the generous gift of Edith Pretty.

Author: agnesashe

Artisan, blogger and passionate East Anglian working from home.

14 thoughts on “Look Away Now”

    1. You’re most welcome. I too don’t subscribe either, but I was able to watch it on a relative’s account. Apparently, if it hadn’t been for Covid it would have been a cinema release which would have been lovely for the long shots of Suffolk.

    1. I have to admit I personally don’t have a subscription, but was able to watch on a relative’s account. I know that not everybody is bothered, but it really annoys me when older women are so blatantly airbrushed. Same old, same old.

  1. This story makes me sad and angry, but not surprised. I hope in my next life I will be assigned to the planet run by and for women all of whom stomp on this kind of treatment, in film or in life. The part about the scenery sounds beautiful.

    1. Oh yes, I so entirely agree with you. And, whilst reading around, I found out that Edith Pretty preferred to drive herself and is thought to even have once flown an aeroplane!!

  2. Wonderful to see more photos and read more about this fascinating story behind the Sutton Hoo boat basically the significance of Edith’s story. Maybe there is another film waiting in the wings from all the research on Edith. Probably needs a female philanthropist though! As for the character of Edith in the film, isn’t that industry just depicting first world country ageism?

    1. Absolutely, most definitely first world ageism, but seasoned with a splash of old-fashioned sexism too. Yes, Edith’s story needs somebody like Cate Blanchett to champion her.

  3. I’ve been watching the TV Series ‘World on Fire’ and when I previously saw your portrait of Edith Pretty I was struck with how much she looked like the character of Robina Chase, played by Lesley Manville. Although she is 64 or so, if might have been better to go for the older aspect! If I ever see this film now I will have your comments top of mind. I can rarely see a film based on real events these days without going on line to Fact Check. Even though they are not documentaries, people do tend to draw their understanding of history from these often highly divergent depictions of reality.

    1. Oh yes, I could totally see Lesley Manville playing Edith Pretty and bringing a strong feeling of her lost, yet energetic past.
      And, yes these so-called documentary dramas. I appreciate it is difficult to make every day life watchable, but recently I have seen several where the liberties taken with the facts and real people are outrageous. Actually, I think it is quite worrying that many people are so easily influenced by this format. A wildly, divergent interpretation of a classic novel is sometimes irritating, but blithely inventing characters for ‘dramatic purposes’ in documentary drama is coming close to fake news, don’t you think?

  4. This was an interesting read! I enjoyed the film, more than I anticipated, but went into it not knowing anything about the true story. Afterwards, when I looked up the story and discovered some of the details you discussed above, it really made me question why some changes were made, especially around Edith. (I felt Peggy Piggot’s depiction could have been more interesting too- though that may be more to do with the casting of Lily James, it just felt very much like a Lily James character).
    I realise that there aren’t claims of accuracy, but in my experience people tend to believe, or want to believe, what they see, particularly when a story is based on real people and events. Therefore, when they see a film like this, it can become their version of the truth- (unless of course, they look it up afterwards). I just always wonder about the responsibility a film has to its audience and inspiration. For myself, to discover such variations, took the shine off my enjoyment- especially when the true story has such interest and potential.

    1. Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. I am glad you enjoyed the film and I totally agree with you about the representation of Peggy Piggot. She really was an amazing archaeologist and was no novice when she arrived at Sutton Hoo despite the depiction in this production. I suppose with these types of films we just have to take it all with a pinch of salt and then go are read about the events from more knowledgeable sources. I, agree with you that it was a missed opportunity to tell a more truthful and more thrilling story.

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