Archeology most comfy is the order of the day in The Dig

Set in 1939, this true story mixes unrequited love and Anglo-Saxon burial mounds

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As cozy as a cup of tea, The Dig tells the story of the 1939 excavation of Sutton Hoo, a 6th-century burial site in East Anglia in the East of England. If your interest in scientific-discovery biopics runs toward the likes of Ammonite, Radioactive or Summerland, pull up a tuffet and settle in. Raiders of the Lost Ark this ain’t.

The film opens with Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) agreeing to do some digging into the ancient mounds that dot the property of widow Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan). He’s clearly a knowledgeable archaeologist (and a decent astronomer to boot) but owing to a lack of formal education he refers to himself as an excavator. The snooty Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) from the local museum is more than happy to slap that label on him as well.

Burial mounds are mysteries hiding in plain sight. The circular ones at Sutton Hoo have been visible for centuries, and many have been plundered of their valuables, but as the clever Mr. Brown concludes, one of them is misshapen, leading would-be robbers to have plumbed the wrong portion for treasure. His careful exploration soon reveals the remains of a ship burial from before the time of the Vikings.

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Raiders of the Lost Ark this ain’t

I’d have been happy enough watching the painstaking progression of the work, along with its occasional perils – a cave-in almost kills Brown, while a sudden rainstorm threatens to flood the entire site. Not to mention the looming clouds of conflict – Britain would be at war before the end of the summer – and the machinations of the nasty Mr. Phillips.

But Moira Buffini’s screenplay, adapted from John Preston’s 2007 historical novel of the same name, stuffs its plot full of thwarted and unrequited and half-requited loves. Edith, despite the class differences between her and Brown, seems very sweet on him, until she learns that he is happily married to a woman who writes to him every day he is at work on the mounds. He just doesn’t talk about her, you see.

Then there’s Stuart and Peggy (Ben Chaplin, Lily James), who show up to help on the dig. It’s clear from the start that he has little physical interest in his wife – how or why they got married in the first place is never explored – and he would rather spend time with another archeologist, played by Eamon Farren. Peggy subsequently develops a crush on Edith’s cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn), even though he’s about to be called up by the RAF.

So many hearts aflutter! But for all the romantic trappings, the archeological bones of the story remain solid. And an intimate chat between Peggy and Rory allows the film to tell us the story of Beatrice Harrison, a British cellist who in 1924 was recorded outside by the fledgling BBC, her work accompanied by the singing of wild nightingales. I’d gladly watch a film about that lovely encounter, and I’d happily curl up with this one again as well.

The Dig is available Jan. 29 on Netflix.

3.5 stars out of 5

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