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Review: 'The Dig' loses sight of big picture

Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan star in period drama about a major historical find

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

There's buried treasure out there in the hills. But what could it be? 

Ralph Fiennes grabs his shovel and gets to excavating in "The Dig," a stiff based-on-a-true-story archaeological drama which, upon realizing the limitations of archaeological dramas, looks elsewhere to juice up its human intrigue. The result is more of a drag than a dig.  

Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes in "The Dig."

Fiennes is Basil Brown, a respected excavator who, given a soil sample, could tell you from which property in Suffolk, England, it came. It's 1939, England is about to enter WWII, and Brown is called to the property of Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), a wealthy landowner, who suspects there may be something underneath the large mounds of soil on the outskirts of her property. 

She's right. Brown finds the remnants of an medieval ship, a major discovery that draws the interest of the British Museum. And it requires more than the hands of Brown, which is where "The Dig" starts to crumble. 

The British Museum wants to house the remnants in their museum, so its reps are dismissively painted as smug villains to Brown's noble hero. And Peggy, a young archaeologist (Lily James), arrives on site to help out and promptly begins making eyes at Edith's cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn), while her husband Stuart (Ben Chaplin) explores other aspects of his sexuality on his own, a tangled storyline that feels pulled in from an entirely different movie.  

Meanwhile the dig, as it turns out, takes a backseat to the rest of the human drama. Simon Stone's handsome direction gives "The Dig" the feel of a classic Merchant Ivory production, but the story, based on John Preston's novel, feels unsure about how best to tell itself.  

There's a dual layer of history going on, with the excavators digging up stories from the past while WWII is unfolding around them. But "The Dig" won't let history speak for itself, and winds up buried in the details. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'The Dig'

GRADE: C

Rated PG-13: for brief sensuality and partial nudity

Running time: 112 minutes

On Netflix