My thoughts on The Dig (2021)

As an archaeology student myself, and a lover of Anglo-Saxon and Viking history, I was cautiously excited to watch The Dig starring Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan, based on an earlier book dramatically retelling the true story of the Sutton Hoo dig. In that regard, The Dig (the movie) is actually the second stage in a game of “Chinese whispers” relaying information of a true story down the line through an untrue book into an even more over-the-top movie. One problem I have with all these “true story” films is that they are never true stories; needless falsehoods are always added on for the sake of artificial drama and padding, but in all honesty The Dig would have been much much better had it just been a 50 minute short movie of Fiennes digging for a Migration Period longship.
All the extra stuff; Mulligan’s illness, the RAF pilot having sex with Lily James in a brick building outside, and the crashed plane – all of that was completely unnecessary. And thats not all of it! There’s also a marriage affair subplot, some forced romantic drama between Fiennes, Mulligan, and Fiennes’ wife, as well as the artificial demonization of real-life archaeologist Charles Phillips (played by Ken Stott in the movie), who was actually very cooperative and worked with Basil Brown during the real-life dig. Some of these falsehoods are unnecessary at best and downright offensive to the truth at worst, and all of them annoy me.

Overall The Dig was so unfocused to the point of parody – often times feeling like a mockery of the so-ridiculed “true story” genre of movies. Scenes of Carey Mulligan walking through fields and looking sad while Fiennes and side-character B spoke about much more interesting topics largely sum up the ultimate product we are left with. I appreciate that, at least in some areas (namely the Suffolk accent and some of the archaeological practises) were as accurate as they could possibly be, but if you’re going to put effort in on those parts and then just say “sod it” to the rest of them – I question why not just make a film of Fiennes digging for 50 minutes? That on its own would have been great, but sadly overall The Dig is anything but.

Author information

Alex Harvey
University of York | ah1919@york.ac.uk