Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes star in Simon Stone's dramatisation of the Sutton Hoo excavation TWITTER/NETFLIXFILM

Historically, East Anglians haven’t enjoyed their presentation in the media. I should know — I’m one of them myself. It has become a tradition in film to characterise us as eccentric country-bumpkins with West Country accents, as though the sole research they’ve done on Norfolk and Suffolk is to visit Birmingham. It’s no surprise a certain hesitancy rippled throughout the Waveney Valley when we started hearing about The Dig, a film based on the discovery of Sutton Hoo, in Suffolk. It centres on the role of Basil Brown, whose old house stands directly opposite mine, on the Norfolk/Suffolk border. I guess that makes him my neighbour of sorts, although he died in 1977, twenty-five years too early for me to ever meet him.

However, this new film stood the test of Suffolk’s cynical, conservative elderly villagers. The sole criticism from the people of my local town of Diss was that they hadn’t used our real post office. A few (potentially over-presumptuous) locals from mine and Basil Brown’s village of Rickinghall expressed their concerns: ‘We’d best not be swarmed by the tourists now this has come out.’

Basil Brown was a self-taught archaeologist, responsible for one of the most important archaeological discoveries of all time TWITTER/NETFLIXFILM

Unlike films that portray a lethargic country lifestyle from the bemused eye of fast-living city dwellers (looking at you, Hot Fuzz), The Dig turns the cliché on its head. Showing the idyll rather than the eccentric, it presents to us a world where the city-goers, here in the guise of the British Museum, are the outsiders. Ralph Fiennes’ Basil Brown is a masterful characterisation.

“Showing the idyll rather than the eccentric, it presents to us a world where the city-goers, here in the guise of the British Museum, are the outsiders.”

He practised this accent, amusingly, by visiting pubs in Sudbury and pretending to be a local. Carey Mulligan, too, does justice to the character of Edith Pretty, despite being twenty years younger than the real Pretty had been (originally the older Nicole Kidman had been touted for the role). Unfortunately, though, The Dig lets itself down in its presentation of several other characters. Ken Stott’s Charles Phillips is the man put in charge of the excavation, a burly John-Bull-type, full of scorn for the untrained and provincial Brown. Johnny Flynn’s Rory Lomax is an amateur photographer and part time manic-pixie-dream-boy, who falls in love with the married Mrs Piggott. And Lily James’ Peggy Piggott is a ditzy, newly-qualified archaeologist, troubled with an unhappy marriage, and only selected to partake in the excavation for her slight weight that makes her less likely to break anything.

Mercie Lack's photos provide some of the first colour images of a British excavation.TWITTER/KATHARINEHOARE

Lomax didn’t actually exist. The real photographers on the site were two women, Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff. Lomax has been introduced as a fabricated love interest, because Piggott is apparently incapable of pursuing independence from her hapless husband unless it is to fall into the arms of another.

These characters are a world away from the real figures behind them — the real Phillips, a Selwyn fellow, was actually a much younger man who, despite his background with the British Museum, was always quick to celebrate Brown’s role in the discovery. There’s something inherently sexist in rewriting the roles of the two women photographers in favour of a male figure who did not exist. Most importantly, Peggy Piggott was a qualified archaeologist in her own right, and a Cambridge graduate. While she did go on to divorce her husband, this was not a trauma that defined her life, as proven by her going on to share the presidency of the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society with him until their deaths. It is baffling that a film celebrated for being so attentive to honouring the history of Sutton Hoo could let itself down in doing justice to Piggott, despite the fact the film was adapted from a book written by her own nephew.

“There’s something inherently sexist in rewriting the roles of the two women photographers in favour of a male figure who did not exist.”

Such a let down baffles me even further given the success of the film’s interpretation of the other female characters and relationships. The relationship between Brown and his wife, May, is beautiful, mature and charming. An elder couple, there is no illustrious romanticism between them, nor any seismic physical intimacy; they are close in a way that real people are. Brown gets suddenly shy and coy when May turns up to visit at Sutton Hoo, a side to him we don’t see behind the confident, mature mask he wears in front of his colleagues. He’s actively embarrassed when May tells him she’s been reading his books just to feel near him, brushing them off as old rubbish, failing to make any big notice of the deep love behind May’s words. Their love is deep, and both show each other a side of them we never see outside of these intimate one-on-one scenes.

Picture taken by Barbara Wagstaff, showing the imprint of the ship's hull left in the site's acidic soilTWITTER/KATHARINEHOARE

Brown’s employer Pretty, too, is very well-characterised. Widowed, and suffering from her own ill health, she is put in the difficult position of owning an estate, caring for her young son Robert, and fending off the attacks of the British Museum on her excavation. She has a deep bond with Brown, but this does not fall into cliché. In one scene that implies a certain spark, she invites Brown for dinner, and is getting especially dressed up for the occasion when she receives news that Brown is otherwise engaged. The sudden sadness in her eyes is a brief flicker, gone in a second, as her stolid stoicism once again takes hold. Rather than a romantic relationship, theirs is merely one of a shared passion. They have a sense of understanding in each other’s complexity that the gentrified British Museum clique do not; a complexity shown through several wordless solo scenes: Pretty travelling to London; Brown cycling through the countryside.


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Overall, The Dig is a remarkable film. It’s the most successful interpretation of rural East Anglian life to date; it’s an incredibly well-put together interpretation of a real historical event. Its cinematography, script and characters are difficult to fault. The misinterpretation of Peggy Piggott and the underhand overwriting of Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff shouldn’t be overlooked. This being said, it would be equally unfair to let this overshadow all the positives that come from this film, and I would be quick to recommend it to anyone with an interest in period dramas.