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.

Historical fiction – more than pure entertainment

We all appreciate the solving of a mystery and this week’s historical and pagent-like reinterment of King Richard III at Leicester Cathedral finally puts to rest all the legends and stories regarding his death and the disposal of his remains. However, his association with ‘The Princes in the Tower’, their disappearance and possible murder is still an ongoing affair. Most famously William Shakespeare’s play ‘Richard the Third’ presents the Plantagenet king as a deformed, treacherous, manipulative monarch who has the princes murdered.

“Shall I be plain? I wish the bastards dead.” Richard III, act 4 scene 2

Of course, the play, a history play even at the time of writing, is a work of fiction with a good helping of Tudor propaganda added to no doubt entertain and flatter Shakespeare’s patron, Elizabeth I. But there are other stories and versions of Richard III that attempt to redress the balance. And, it is interesting that it is in historical fiction we find a different complex, but less villainous account of Richard. As with Hilary Mantel’s recent rehabilitation of Thomas Cromwell in ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies’, so the 1951 book ‘The Daughter of Time’, by Josephine Tey attempts to give us a more favourable view of Richard III.

richard III reconstructed
Face of a King.
Facial depiction of King Richard III, created by Professor Caroline Wilkinson and the forensic art team of the University of Dundee, Scotland.
Exhibited at the British Museum by kind permission of the Richard III Society as part of a national tour organised by Leicester Arts and Museum Services.

I have read virulent criticism of both Mantel’s portrayal of Cromwell and Tey’s version of Richard III, but historians and other interested parties seem to forget that history if often a blanket of conjecture enveloping a grain of fact. If the writers of historical fiction work their magic on the surviving meagre facts to entertain us hopefully it encourages us to investigate history further. And, at the very least, well-researched historical fiction should prompt us to consider the extent of historical ‘imagination’ that has been applied to the forging of our received, textbook histories.