'The Dig' on Netlfix: The Big Changes Made to the True Story of Sutton Hoo

The Dig is the latest movie released by Netflix, which is a dramatic retelling of the Sutton Hoo archeological discovery of the late 1930s, which saw amateur archeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) discover an ancient burial mound full of amazing Anglo-Saxon artifacts. Real archaeology (as opposed to the whip-cracking, globe-trotting type dreamed up by the Indiana Jones movies) is a slow and laborious process, and as such seems an unlikely topic for a starry movie. However, Netflix has decided that it is a story worth telling—though they have made some typically Hollywood changes to the film to amp up some of the details.

Hollywood's arguably sexist tendency to cast women who are much younger than the women they are portraying has long been the subject of jokes, and so is the case in The Dig with landowner Edith Pretty—ironic, as she is played by Carey Mulligan, who has been criticising sexism in the media recently following a controversial review of her film Promising Young Woman by Variety.

In 1939, when the majority of The Dig is set, Pretty was 56, five years older than Brown, the amateur archaeologist she appointed to excavate some earth mounds on her Sutton Hoo estate in Ipswich, England. In the Netflix movie, however, she is played by Mulligan, 35, acting alongside the 58-year-old Fiennes.

the dig sutton hoo true story
Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes as Edith Pretty and Basil Brown in 'The Dig'. Both are based on real-life people – though the age-gap between them is an invention of the Netflix movie. Netflix

Some of the details of the real Pretty's life, however, have remained. At the time of the dig, she was a widow with a young son, Robert, born in 1930. Her husband Frank had died in 1934 after a battle with stomach cancer. The real-life Edith, meanwhile, died just a few years after the Sutton Hoo dig, after suffering a stroke in late 1942.

The film, however, does avoid the cliché of taking the real-life professional relationship of Pretty and Brown and turning it into a romance. That does not mean, however, that the writers of The Dig did not invent a romance to make the true story more movie-friendly.

The dashing Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn), for example, is an entirely invented character. His romantic partner Peggy Preston (Lily James) is a real person, but she was happily married throughout the excavation, marrying Stuart Piggott in 1936 and only divorcing him in 1954.

What is real despite feeling like Hollywood exaggeration, however, is the scale of the discoveries at Sutton Hoo. Brown and his team discovered a nearly-90 foot long ship containing a burial chamber packed full of treasures. There was also a cavity where they believed a body had been placed (confirmed more recently by soil analysis), suggesting that this was a burial moment to a significant person whose death had been marked with a significant effigy.

In fact, the story of who this person might be would make an interesting film all on its own. Some historians have postulated that the figure buried at Sutton Hoo may have been an Anglo Saxon king with power over a number of local tribes. As the acidic soil have totally consumed the body, however, we are unlikely to ever know this identity.

The Dig is streaming now on Netflix.