GLASTONBURY, England- The Wild Hunt reported on the archaeological background of the recent film “The Dig” last month and the movie has since been released on Netflix. Ralph Fiennes plays amateur archaeologist Basil Brown and Cary Mulligan portrays Edith Pretty, the landowner who brought him in to investigate the mysterious mounds on her country estate in Suffolk, the film is as much an elegy to the pre-World War II way of life that was about to vanish forever as it is to the discovery of the long lost Anglo-Saxon past.
Basil is a self-taught excavator working with Ipswich Museum. He is the son of a farmer, left school at 12, and not only dedicated his life to archaeology but also taught himself Greek and Latin and wrote a book on the cosmos: his interest in the stars is depicted in the film. Basil is described to Edith as ‘a difficult man’ but it becomes clear that he is ‘difficult’ primarily in his reluctance to kowtow to the upper classes and in maintaining quiet but justified confidence in his own abilities.
Fiennes portrays Basil in a low-key, sympathetic manner. Interestingly Fiennes was born in Ipswich and has taken some pains to develop an authentic Suffolk accent.
Cary Mulligan is decades younger than the woman she portrays: the part was initially cast with the much older Nicole Kidman. Her depiction of Edith Pretty is both heartbreaking and authentic.
Basil is married and Edith is widowed. Thankfully, Simon Stone, the film’s director successfully resisted the obvious temptation to cast this as a tragic romance. Instead Stone concentrates on a meeting of minds with the shared focus of the emerging ship burial, with a romantic and entirely fictional subplot that is slightly shoe-horned into the narrative.
When a discussion about “The Dig” took place on a Folk Horror forum of which I am part, someone remarked that the only horrifying element of the film is the attitude of Cambridge academics towards the lower orders. It is a fair point, since, in his diaries of the dig, Basil recorded in them ‘a lively exchange of words’ with incoming archaeologist Charles Phillips, portrayed with a vivacious eccentricity by Ken Stott. Charles takes over the dig on behalf of the British Museum.
However, what the film does not make clear is that the two men continued to correspond after the dig was over and that Phillips engineered a pension for the perpetually impoverished Brown some considerable time later.
But “The Dig” is a story of relationships much more than it is about Sutton Hoo burial mound and the finds therein. While the excellent supporting cast lends considerable gravitas to the proceedings of the film, the land itself emerges as a character. Despite being filmed in Surrey where the site reconstruction occurred, the evocative shots of Suffolk skies and rivers really give a feel for the setting.
Watching social media over the weekend after the movie’s release, it is clear that the British Pagan community has taken “The Dig” to its heart, with only a handful of nit-picks and a universal praising of the narrative.
A number of people, however, were a little disappointed that the film did not focus on one crucial aspect of the historical story, which is that Edith Pretty – who repeatedly says to Basil that she has ‘a feeling’ that the mounds on her property are significant – was a practicing spiritualist who held a number of seances prior to contacting Ipswich Museum (by more conventional means), and her conviction about the burial site may have come from this.
Edith turned to spiritualism after the death of her husband, leaving her to raise her young son alone. Edith was a friend of British spiritual healer William Parish and provided the financial backing for him to open a spiritual healing centre in London. However, she was also the daughter of an archaeologist and had visited the Nile Valley digs, so she was not unfamiliar with archaeological excavations and may also have drawn conclusions of her own about her property from local history and folklore, too.
Both in the film and in real life, Basil does not dismiss these intuitions and indeed acts upon them, but Edith’s spiritual practices are an important omission from the film.
We asked British Pagans for their views on the film.
“It struck me that Basil’s character was so multifaceted, he embodied the true polymath in his exploration of so many diverse interests, it touched a chord in me as a bright child who also left school early and refused to stop learning. I loved that he was also emotionally present and responsive, walking away when the situation became intolerable, but having the heart to return when it became clear that his being there meant more than as a labourer or excavator.
“He gave strength and inspiration to Edith’s son moving through a time of loss and uncertainty, it was so moving to witness him acting as death companion, creating a safe container for those precious goodbyes within the ancient ship itself. A reminder for those of us working in ceremonies of loss and unbinding that our role is that of witnessing, making things simple, and honouring the needs of those we support in the journey to those gateways of eternity.” (Bliss Russell, Pagan)
“The Dig was a beautiful film. Bit disappointed they didn’t show the Sutton Hoo helmet but wow, what a find. Also a shame they didn’t mention the spiritual side of Edith Pretty and how spirit showed her where to dig. Also that friends of hers are believed to have seen the spirits of Anglo Saxon warriors in that area. Maybe not a Christian enough spin on a beautiful story.” (Fiona Brogan, Heathen)