The problems for writers of historical fiction may be little different from those of anyone using “true events” as the basis of their stories. Sources may be more distant, but the real issue remains: which drama, among the welter of life, historical accounts, and potential metaphors will be portrayed?
The Dig, a new movie on Netflix, starring Ralph Fiennes, is based on a 2007 novel by John Preston, about the 1938-9 discovery of the Sutton Hoo treasure, which was dug from burial mounds in the English countryside. Preston is the nephew of accomplished English archaeologist Cecily Margaret Guido, also known as Peggy Piggott, the name of her character in the movie.
Writing is all about view and framing. The Sutton Hoo discovery would fill shelves of books, and entire vaults with film, but if it is to be treated as an entertainment (and not, for example, as a documentary about archaeology), what will be the drama?
Preston has said he learned of Guido’s contributions in the Sutton Hoo dig only a short time before he wrote his book, and it seems as if his surprise and naivete were embedded in her character. In the movie she is portrayed as very young and somewhat clueless in both archaeology and love. Her husband is portrayed as older than he was (and gay and philandering), so a lover—a handsome young RAF pilot—is invented for her. In a cascading series of these decisions, her fictional lover takes the photos of the dig site that in real life were taken by two women, Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff, and by a male officer of the British Ordnance Survey.
Similarly, the woman who actually owned the land in Suffolk, Edith Pretty, is portrayed as two decades younger than she was, and pining for the attention of Ralph Fiennes’ Basil Brown, a laborer. It hints she is lost without her dead husband, but Edith Pretty was in reality from a wealthy family, had a good education, traveled widely, and served as a magistrate. It was she, not her husband, who had bought the manor house and land.
The movie, like most melodrama, makes its characters good or bad. The curators from the local museum and the British Museum, since they must contrast with Brown’s quiet dignity, are a whiney toady and an overweight blowhard.
As Wiki says, the changes made for the sake of the movie “affect the chronology and topography of the excavation, the archaeological methods, the state of knowledge of the excavators at the time, the identity and contents of the various burial mounds, and (to some extent) the character and motivations of the real people involved. Some caution is therefore needed in accepting the historical canvas.”
Trying to find drama in what was mostly slow, backbreaking labor, The Dig scoops it all up—hints of a class-forbidden relationship; trouble at home for Brown; a dying mother with young child, who is fatherless; a young wife hungry for physical affection from a gay husband; imperious museum curators who do not know as much as self-educated genius Brown; a dead pilot salvaged by a future pilot; not to mention constant reminders of looming war, and the symbolism of digging up death.
It is too much, and uneven and meandering as a result. The movie looks like a Merchant Ivory film at times, but has the worldview (nearly) of Bridges of Madison County.
The problem is that meaning in drama can cut just about any way, from tragic to comic. A burial ship revealed on the eve of global cataclysm could be seen as solemn and portentous, or it could suggest, however thinly, an invitation for a digger to come root around in a lady’s mound. (Do I go too far by saying the screenshot at the top of this review is hilarious in its suggestiveness?) This is what is at stake in view and framing.
Moby-Dick, also a fiction based on real events, chooses to be a drama about anger at the Void, at Otherness, at Death. Amadeus plays fast and loose with biography to dramatize morbid jealousy and the mystery of genius. It is hard to say what The Dig invites us to see.
For my money ($13.99 a month), the real story, entirely free from the need for allegiance to “true events,” was in the early part of the movie—in the shared recognition, by Brown and Pretty, of the texture of life. That would have been a very quiet film, though still perhaps lush, like Babette’s Feast, one of my ideals for a film about unappreciated expertise, longing, and the past. Mrs. Pretty would never see Brown as possible love interest or hope her son would grow up to be just like him, with all his rough authenticity. Not one screen minute would go to her being dressed by a maid, as if for sacrifice. (There were sacrificial burials in the mounds.)
But that film would flop, and the timidity and banality of Netflix original movies have served the company so far. Near the end of this one, Peggy Piggott sets her gay husband free with an understanding that defies belief, and runs to the young guy she has talked to at least a couple of times and is most definitely in love with. Cut to: sex in the rubble.
“Peggy moans,” says the subtitling, for those who cannot hear the obvious.