‘The Dig’ unearths an intimate true story

Movies tend to make archaeology much more exciting than it is. In “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” a sexy archaeologist is chased by a giant boulder and cracks a whip. In “The Mummy,” the search for antiquities nearly leads to global annihilation.

the dig

Running time: 112 minutes. Rated PG-13 (brief sensuality and partial nudity). In select theaters Friday, on Netflix Jan. 29.

“The Dig” has no plagues of locusts or melting human flesh — though Ralph Fiennes could use a shower. It’s an intimate film that moves at the deliberate, careful pace of an excavation and, in so doing, uncovers a few gems along the way. 

It’s the true story of a self-taught archaeologist named Basil Brown (Fiennes) who, in 1938, discovered a game-changing treasure trove in England. Director Simon Stone’s film does not follow the tired old “here’s how history was made!” rubric, though.

“The Dig” is more fanciful than that, and the pastoral look of the film suggests it could’ve been written by Jane Austen, if Elizabeth Bennet had been a mumbling old guy.

The mumbler, Basil, arrives at a sprawling Suffolk estate covered in ancient mounds at the request of its owner, Edith (a contemplative Carey Mulligan), who has a hunch that they contain more than just dirt.

She’s right! After a bit of shoveling, Basil finds a seventh century burial ship — think “Beowulf” — in the ground and enlists pals and locals to help him excavate it.

Moira Buffini’s script works best when probing the peculiar relationship of Edith and Basil. He’s married, a bit long in the tooth, and looks like he rolled around in a fireplace. And she is, well, played by Carey Mulligan. This is not the pair you’d expect to go to dinner and a movie.

But Edith is widowed with a young son (the remarkably expressive Archie Barnes), and clearly craves having a man around the manse. A romance doesn’t bloom, exactly, but rather a deep fondness that’s confusing for both. Mulligan and Fiennes really sell it. 

The other characters? Eh. Johnny Flynn plays Edith’s photographer nephew Rory, and Lily James is another archaeologist named Peggy. James slaps on some glasses and — presto! — bombshell to bookworm. Both are fantastic actors, and have a hot-blooded tension, but they feel extraneous.  

Still, there is something profound about a sleepy hamlet and mournful household being awakened by a lost artifact. Their happiness, like the ship, was there the whole time. They only had to look for it.

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